New East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Sito Narcisse sent out a contrite message to staff as they were heading out the door Friday afternoon.

“I have taken this past week to listen to your feedback, read your heartfelt emails, and recognize the tremendous amount of stress and hardships many of you have endured this past year,” Narcisse wrote.

The superintendent, who has held the job for barely three months, faced loud criticism from many parents and teachers last week over his proposal to move up the start date for the 2021-22 school year by about two weeks. Now he plans to reconvene newly created advisory councils of teachers and principals to look anew at that proposal.

“There are many ways we can improve educational outcomes in this city, and I cannot move this work without you,” Narcisse concluded. “I wish you all a restful weekend.“

The early start proposal, which Narcisse is calling Smart Start, has sparked unusually fierce and passionate opposition since it was announced publicly on March 31.

On April 12, the first day back from spring break, the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, one of the two big teachers unions locally, staged a “sickout” that nearly forced several schools to close. The outcry has stood out, even in a year already full of drama and passion.

"To even imply that every teacher in this district hasn’t put every ounce of energy into this school year is a slap in the face,” one teacher told Narcisse during a town hall Wednesday at Woodlawn Baptist Church.

"You say you're being attacked. We feel attacked," another teacher told him that night.

At the same time, Smart Start also has strong, if less vocal, supporters. Some educators see it as a way of trying to reverse the academic slide of many schoolchildren during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as well as a chance to earn some welcome additional pay.

The plan, which would be paid for by federal COVID-19 relief money, also includes noncontroversial provisions for additional camps and athletics during the summer.

Brandon Levatino, principal at Liberty High School in Baton Rouge, said he has faculty in both sides of the Smart Start debate and that they both have a point.

“There’s just so many moving pieces and complexity to this,” Levatino said. “Yes, there are learning gaps on one hand and there are people gaps on the other. I think everybody is trying to work out a fine line between both.”

It’s not clear where the School Board will land ultimately.

During a marathon meeting Thursday, board members voted 6-2 to keep the proposal alive by forwarding it without recommendation. That sets the stage for yet another marathon meeting when the board takes up the topic again Thursday. It needs five votes to pass.

Voting no were board President David Tatman and Vice President Dawn Collins. And board members Connie Bernard and Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who voted yes, expressed interest in an alternative, which would end the school year late rather than starting it early. Board member Tramelle Howard was absent.

Prior to his Friday email to staff, Narcisse did not betray much doubt about his plan.

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In addition to the School Board meeting, he participated in at least five public events, online and in person, where he explained his proposal and fielded questions. He has been beset by questions, particularly from teachers, about various problems sparked by starting two weeks early.

At times, he did not come across as very sympathetic.

“I am not asking you to give all of your time,” Narcisse told listeners on an April 11 radio show with local NAACP leaders. “I am asking you to make an adjustment.”

At times, his impatience became clear.

One caller asked him about a $1,300 stipend that Narcisse has proposed to pay all school employees. While the stipend is meant to recognize employees for their work during the current 2020-21 school year, something many other school districts have already done, this stipend is not to be paid out until August — after Smart Start, leading to questions about whether the two are tied together.

When that caller asked Narcisse if employees would receive the stipend even if Smart Start is defeated, he sounded irritated.

“We’re still talking about the money more than kids,” he said. “We can’t have adult components be more important than kids.”

The backlash began right after the March 31 news conference where Narcisse first announced his plan, flanked by eight School Board members. That news conference was held in the middle of a school day and shown live in classrooms across the school district. Only a few knew it was coming.

Narcisse later apologized for not sharing the news with school staff before he shared it with the general public but has not backed away from the substance of the proposal.

The announcement of Smart Start was also hampered by limited information about all of its particulars, leading to widespread confusion. The school district finally began to address those many questions with written explanations this past week.

Angela Reams-Brown is president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers. The union has been critical of Narcisse, especially his failure to share it internally before announcing it publicly, but generally supports it.

Reams-Brown said there are many school employees who are looking forward to the extra pay from starting early but did not want to cross their coworkers who are passionately opposed. She said the supporters are more likely to work in schools with more kids who are further behind due to the pandemic. She said she’s urging them to speak out.

“If you were one of the people who was interested in getting all of this money, it’s time to step up, time to not be quiet,” Reams-Brown said.

The move was also a surprise because the School Board had approved a calendar for the 2021-21 school year just 13 days before that mirrored calendars of the past.

Starting the year two weeks earlier meant some parents and educators would have to undo plans they’d already set.

In the two public discussions of that calendar, no one mentioned the possibility that it might be changed. When questioned, Narcisse has said the plan all along was to amend the calendar. He said he didn’t feel comfortable announcing that until after a state-called webinar on March 30, where he learned precisely how much per money the school district will be receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law March 11.

The law is providing the school system with $144.6 million in funding, $28.9 million of which will be available soon. The law provides only 30 days, until April 30, for school districts to say how they plan to spend the money.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.