South Baton Rouge residents have long talked about following the lead of Central, Baker and Zachary and forming their own school district. Last year, a few of them decided to get serious about it.
About 10 businessmen based in the Jones Creek area form the core of a group calling itself Local Schools for Local Children. They’ve enlisted state Sen. Bodi White to their cause, and if they get their way, 10 schools in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish would be carved out and taken from the parish school system, whose scores, despite recent gains, remain mired in the bottom half of the state’s rankings.
If southeast Baton Rouge is allowed to break away, students in the new district would lose access to EBR’s prized gifted and magnet programs, while some students who live outside the district would be cut off from their current school.
Organizers say the district could create its own specialized programs, and they believe a smaller district with community buy-in would better serve the bulk of students who can’t get into the magnet schools. Almost certainly, the new district would be among Louisiana’s leaders, as measured by district performance scores, while what’s left of the EBR system would slide further down the standings.
Local Schools President Norman Browning, who works in medical sales and owns a bridal shop on Jones Creek Road, says most of the key organizers are grandparents.
“We grew up in community schools,” he says. “We need to bring the community back to our [public] schools. The private schools aren’t necessarily community schools.”
Browning reached out to White, a Central Republican who was instrumental in the push to form his hometown’s community school district. White wanted to know if Browning and his neighbors were sincere and were “willing to run the marathon,” Browning recalls.
Not everyone can afford private school, he says, and for those who can, the tuition eats into their discretionary income. He says young families are moving to Central, Zachary, Livingston Parish and Ascension Parish, where the public schools are rated much higher than those in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.
White filed legislation for the current session that would allow for the creation of the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System, encompassing the sector of East Baton Rouge that lies between Interstates 10 and 12 and east of the 10/12 split.
A state constitutional amendment would be necessary, along with approval by voters in the district and the parish as a whole. A separate bill by White would streamline the process, allowing the Legislature to create new districts without a constitutional amendment.
“I would predict the southeast region would be in the top 10 of the state,” thanks to its demographics, says Noel Hammatt, an education researcher and former EBR school board member who does not support the breakaway effort.
Public schools in Central and Zachary earned high performance scores while they were part of the EBR system, and they continued to rack up high scores after leaving the system.
Zachary, which has the lowest percentage of poor students in the state, is the highest-scoring district, while Central’s 2011 district performance score was seventh best. Schools in Baker, with a much higher percentage of poor and minority students, struggled when they were part of the EBR system, and continue to struggle today.
Take southeast Baton Rouge out of the picture, and the EBR system’s demographics start to approach St. Helena Parish’s, Hammatt says. St. Helena posted the state’s lowest district performance score in 2011.
“EBR becomes, overnight, more African-American, more polarized, and poorer,” he says. “And inevitably, [EBR] has more costs.”
For example, other breakaway districts have been allowed to leave behind the cost of retiree health benefits. In a 2009 report, LSU economist Jim Richardson suggests payment of such benefits “should be discussed and negotiated prior to the creation of any new school system based on geography in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
White says the proposed district’s school buildings are in better shape than Central’s were when the latter left the EBR system. Three new schools have been built in the Woodlawn area since the last tax renewal.
“They learned from Central,” Hammatt says. “Get new schools built, then break away.”
One possible upside of a new district is that business recruiters in Baton Rouge would have another highly ranked school district to talk about with prospects who aren’t interested in living in (and commuting from) Central or Zachary. Baton Rouge Area Chamber spokeswoman Lauren Songy Hatcher says the new district probably would have little impact on recruitment efforts because the region already has five of the state’s top 15 school districts.
“We do relatively well as a region demonstrating access to quality education choices,” she says. “Increasing access to more quality choices, whether magnet schools, charter schools, or simply autonomous public schools, is always attractive.”
Even critics of the East Baton Rouge system say its “gifted and talented” and magnet programs are of high quality. White calls the magnet schools “pockets of excellence.” Not every student can get into a magnet school, although EBR is trying to expand access.
“Usually, it comes down to what you can and can’t afford,” says Carlos Sam, EBR’s interim superintendent and director of Innovative and Specialized Programs, which includes magnet schools. The system is pursuing a federal grant that could provide an additional $12 million to $15 million a year over three to five years for magnet programs.
“Larger school systems do have an advantage of providing certain services at a certain level,” Sam says. For example, EBR has won national awards for its self-contained programs with dedicated teachers for “gifted” students, he says, and a smaller district might not be able to replicate that model.
Hammatt says high-quality magnet schools can be difficult to achieve in a small district; he says southeast Baton Rouge certainly wouldn’t be able to replicate Baton Rouge Magnet High School. But he says the district would still be larger than the average U.S. district, and would be able to offer a reasonable diversity of programs.
“The bottom line is, they can meet their needs,” he says.
Some southeast Baton Rouge parents are concerned about losing access to EBR’s magnet schools. One group that potentially could end up competing with Local Schools, calling itself “Baton Rouge Neighborhood Schools,” hadn’t released details of its proposed south Baton Rouge district at press time. But on Facebook, a Neighborhood Schools representative says the group would like to break off a much larger portion of the parish than Browning’s group recommends, one that includes Baton Rouge High in Mid City and other magnet and self-contained gifted programs.
Browning says he’s met with representatives of the other south Baton Rouge group, and he’s also heard from a woman in north Baton Rouge interested in a similar effort in her area. He insists parents in his proposed district needn’t worry about losing magnet schools. Not only will similar programs be offered, he says, but the smaller district will be more nimble and better able to offer programs for which demand arises.
“The magnet schools [in EBR] are doing fine. But what about the other children?” he says. “We need to bring the community back.”