Buying only air-conditioned buses in the future and closing the transfer point on North Sherwood Forest Road that’s been a trouble spot for years were hot topics at an all-day retreat Saturday held by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Board members also considered setting minimum academic criteria to get into Lee High School and talked about finding ways to make nonmagnet schools more attractive.
New East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake and the six members of his senior Cabinet briefed the board on progress since Drake took over the state’s second largest school system in June. He said it’s been a busy time.
“Wow, I just finished my third month and I feel like I just finished my (three-year) contract,” Drake said.
The retreat at Louisiana Technology Park on Florida Boulevard was the first held by the nine-member School Board that took office in January and its first with Drake. Kenyetta Nelson-Smith was the only board member absent Saturday.
Drake and his staff are rolling out new initiatives, some with price tags, while at the same time saying they are actively looking at ways to cut costs in a school district that has had to make millions in budget cuts for the past six years.
For instance, the school system is looking to buy 57 new school buses; the board put $4.5 million into the budget for that purpose.
“I would like you to consider air conditioning our buses,” Drake told the board Saturday.
By law, buses that transport only students with disabilities are required to be air-conditioned, but most of the school system’s fleet is not air-conditioned.
Drake said the added cost would be about $5,000 per bus, which works out to $285,000 total. The buses, however, are expected to last 15 years, meaning the cost is more like $330 per bus per year.
“It gives our students the very best we have to offer,” Drake said.
Another benefit is that the bus windows would remain closed at all times, cutting down on possible mischief, he said.
Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson was in favor. She said she had tried to interest former Superintendent Bernard Taylor in the idea but was told it would cost too much.
“I know it’s too hot on those buses, and kids are cutting up and that’s a problem,” Ware-Jackson said.
In a similar vein, Drake is moving forward with plans this year to close the school system’s transfer point, where about 1,800 students a day change buses. These include many students who opt out of their neighborhood schools to take advantage of magnet programs. A few high-profile fights and acts of bullying have given the transfer point a bad reputation.
Closing it, however, won’t be easy.
“I want you to know that will require significant changes in attendance zones,” Drake said. “You don’t just say you want to eliminate transfer. There’s a big trickle-down effect.”
Drake said he’s also looking at ways to cut down in general on the cost of transportation, saying, “everything is on the table.”
The superintendent, however, said he’s proceeding with care.
“Sometimes you solve one problem and you create three more,” he said.
The board also discussed magnet and gifted-and-talented programs Saturday.
What it takes to get into Lee High could change. In 2013, the school was converted to a dedicated, or schoolwide, magnet school, similar to Baton Rouge Magnet High, and it’s now in the midst of a $54.7 million rebuilding.
Baton Rouge Magnet requires incoming students to have a minimum 2.5 GPA and to be on grade level on standardized tests. Lee High, on the other hand, requires only a portfolio of student work demonstrating some student aptitude in the arts, engineering or digital design.
Drake is suggesting Lee shift to minimum admission requirements similar to Baton Rouge Magnet High, but board member Connie Bernard raised questions about taking that route.
She noted that by becoming a magnet school, Lee no longer automatically accepted students from the south Baton Rouge area it has historically drawn from, which includes part of her district. The portfolio approach was done to give neighborhood students more of a chance to go to a high school near home, she said.
The discussion also focused on what can be done to make other schools more attractive. It was prompted by data presented showing hundreds of gifted-and-talented students are opting out of McKinley and Woodlawn High schools, which offer gifted services, for magnet schools such as Baton Rouge Magnet, which don’t.
“We have to allow principals the autonomy to create their own dynamic programs in their schools so that all schools can be great,” said Adam Smith, the new associate superintendent of academics.
Adonica Duggan, the new communications director, said she’s working with principals at nonmagnet schools to better promote what they are doing.
Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton acknowledged magnet schools have standing advantages, including a progression plan that leads to popular schools such as Baton Rouge Magnet High.
Drake said he’s determined to get past such obstacles.
“We have to make all of our schools desirable by everyone in the parish,” he said. “That’s what we have to do.”