Term limits join session's big issues

Term limits join session's big issues

As hard as this legislative session has been on teachers, those taking a worse beating are the school boards. But the issues that have teachers rallying in front of the Capitol are not those that have school board members most concerned. Having tenure hearings—rare as they are—taken from their purview should be the least of their worries. Also well down the woe list, realistically, is the scholarship bill, assuming only 2,000 of 703,000 public school students get available slots in private or parochial schools.

A larger threat to school boards is the potentially vast expansion of charter schools and online courses that will tap more local education dollars directly (the voucher bill only does so indirectly). In most parishes, state scholarships would allow a handful of students to move over to the local Catholic school. Charter schools take students by the hundreds and come with their own boards to oversee the spending of millions in state and local dollars. That transfer of money and power is the main reason school boards are loath to approve charter applications.

To get around that local barrier—and to relieve the state board from having to deal with so many charter applications—House Bill 976 by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, creates charter authorizers, which gets the local university or civic foundation poking into local education business.

The news for school boards gets worse. The tenure bill prohibits them from telling superintendents or principals whom they can hire and fire. It also provides for direct review of superintendents' performance by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

What's left for school board members? Their jobs.

A bill on the House floor would require local-option elections on term limits for school board members. Such a bill tore through the House in 2010, but died in Senate committee.

On the surface, it would seem an easy proposition for lawmakers to let the people decide. This, after all, is a body born of term limits. Yet those who benefited from term limits by having an open seat to run for often change their attitudes once they are sworn in.

There are a number of good reasons for legislators not to vote to hold the local option elections. Foremost, of course, is that Gov. Bobby Jindal is not telling them to. He's taking no position on the HB 292 by Rep. Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula. Therefore, representatives, having done enough to school boards already at the governor's behest, could feel inclined to give them one.

If the main education bill passes today, conciliation will be needed in some parishes, where school board members, especially ones who have been around a long time, wield a lot of influence. Also, there is the delicate matter of what those politicians might do once they know their days in that office are numbered. They might start looking for another one to run for, like in the Legislature.

Facing longer odds than school board term limits is a proposed constitutional amendment to apply them to the six statewide-elected officials besides the governor. Unlike the majority needed for the school boards bill, HB 390 by Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, needs two-thirds majorities in both houses to get on the ballot. One might think there is nothing to stop it, given that the governor is already term-limited and none of the affected officials have opposed the bill. Yet only one, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, has told the Legislature he is for it.

Champagne tried passing the same bill two years ago, but it died on the House calendar for lack of support. Moving it could be hard this year, but it's not the statewide-elected officials stopping it.

Lawmakers may not care what the secretary of state or his colleagues think, but they pay attention to the sheriffs, who have come out strong against the proposal. The sheriffs' state association director, Mike Ranatza, told committee members, "Now it's only state officials, but we realize that sentiment could go to local government as well." Or as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife would say, "Nip it, nip it in the bud."

There is a good chance the House will so oblige.

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