desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Nearly $50 million worth of education spending underwritten by federal COVID relief funds was handily approved Thursday by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

The spending plan — which was authored by Superintendent Sito Narcisse and calls for educating 1,000 preschool children, replacing laptops, adding extra workdays for employees and hiring dozens of learning coaches — is undergoing a final review, set to wrap up June 1, by the state Department of Education.

The money comes from federal stimulus aid approved by Congress in December and again in March. The school system has been allocated about $60 million in stimulus funds, about $48 million of which is going directly to educational initiatives. Another $144 million is to be allocated next year.

The final vote Thursday was 7-1, with board Vice President Dawn Collins opposing and board member Tramelle Howard absent.

Unlike the May 6 meeting when a lot of board members asked questions, only Collins had questions Thursday.

Collins said Narcisse and his staff were able to answer many of her concerns, but she said she’s stuck on the fact that the federal money will bring with it $20 million in new recurring expenses. She said she’s not comfortable with the ways the district plans to keep that spending going even after the federal money dries up.

“I don't feel like putting us on the hook for $20 million,” Collins explained.

Some of the spending items that rely on the federal funding are not new, but rather involve things the school system has funded in years past using other money.

The added spending on early childhood education, totaling about $8 million, is part of a long-term push by Narcisse to eventually offer universal preschool in Baton Rouge. The federal money will support educating 937 young children. Only 200 of those would be by adding spots in pre-K. The rest would be children educated through local child care centers — 117 of the seats would be for kids 3 years old and younger.

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The new learning coaches are another key effort by Narcisse to improve academics at district schools. They include new literacy coaches at 53 schools and math coaches at 20 schools. The money would also fund new personnel, including 44 specialists for working with students learning English as a second language, 22 teachers for alternative schools, 11 social-and-emotional support workers, eight art instructors and at least six new counselors. A related line item would pay for 10 more nurses contracted from Our Lady of the Lake Health System.

The new literacy coaches will be helped by additional money that the state Department of Education approved in April. This is from a competitive school improvement grant program. This year, the school system is receiving $6 million — twice what it received a year ago. Some of that money will be used to add to the district’s overhaul of its literacy program, another key Narcisse initiative, which dovetails with priorities of State Schools Superintendent Cade Brumley.

Brumley showed up at Thursday’s meeting in person to announce the $6 million award. Narcisse was quick to show his appreciation.

“Anytime you'd like to give us money, you are definitely allowed to present," the superintendent said.

In other action, the board agreed, without discussion, to expand EBR Virtual Academy, now only a small high school with 30 students, all the way down to pre-kindergarten.

The expansion is meant to provide a home for the school district’s more than 12,000 students who have shifted to virtual-only instruction during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Currently, these students mostly get instruction from their regular classroom teachers who are simultaneously teaching in person while virtual students watch remotely from home. It's a setup that can be very taxing on teachers that Narcisse has said he is bringing to an end.

What this revamped, expanded virtual school will look like is still a work in progress. On May 6, Chief of Schools Sharon Williams gave a presentation on where that effort stood, but she did not offer the board a follow-up presentation Thursday night as she previously indicated she would.

As part of the revamp, the district has been collecting feedback from parents, teachers and students through surveys and focus groups. Williams has said the revamped school will have options for students with disabilities, gifted and magnet students, as well as students playing sports.


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