Information critical to debate over Southeast Baton Rouge School District

Wednesday, April 3, 2013 - 5:00am

When the legislative session begins next week, one of the biggest local issues will be the creation of a new school district for Southeast Baton Rouge.

State Representatives Ted James and Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge), two of the idea's biggest opponents in the state legislature, talked to One Community One School District on Tuesday about their plans to defeat the proposal or the second year in a row.

They echoed group leaders in saying that gathering information will be crucial.

"We've really struggled with, parents want to know what the Local Schools for Local Children group is going to actually do in this district," said Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District. "And up until just a couple of days ago, there website had nothing about that."

Local Schools for Local Children is the organization promoting the creation of the Southeast Baton Rouge School District. It recently posted a curriculum that shows the different programs offered by each of the ten schools in the breakaway zone.

In addition, the bill filed by State Sen. Bodi White (R-Baton Rouge) that describes how the district will form provided new, worrisome information for its opponents.

Of note, the bill stated that the district would pay the legacy costs of any East Baton Rouge Public School System employee it hires. Retired teachers and staff who worked at those schools will not be covered, so EBRPSS will continue to pay for them.

"If my kids are in that part that's left behind, then those costs are likely to have an impact on their education in years to come," said Jessica Ebrhard.

The new district would have an incentive not to hire the teachers currently working at those schools so that it will not have to pay their legacy costs.

"It's troubling that the proposed district is not talking to these teachers about what's going to happen to them, what their role is in the new district," said Davis.

When the idea of the breakaway district was introduced in 2012, it passed in the Senate, but failed by a couple of votes in the House.

Rep. Barrow, however, thinks some legislators will take back their support of it this time around.

"For a lot of people, it was a very hard vote to take," she said. "Many of them, I feel, were very pressured to vote a certain way. Not that they actually agreed with the ideology or philosophy, but because of the pressure, they voted that way. And I think it's going to be difficult for individuals to keep voting for something that they really don't believe in."

Critics claim the proposed district would limit opportunities for parents; take money away from EBRPSS; reduce racial and socioeconomic diversity from both districts; put EBRPSS on the brink of takeover by the Recovery School District; and result in higher taxes for people within its boundaries.

"You're talking about, within a parish, separating out a school district, so no one wins at the end," Rep. Barrow stated.

Supporters say diversity will not suffer in the new district; taxes would not go up like they did in Central and Zachary; many parents would be able to take their children out of private schools and put them back into public schools; a smaller district would have less administrative waste; and greater control would increase parent involvement.

Ebrhard said meetings such as this one have taught her a lot about issues facing local education.

"And about just the whole process of how politics works and how these decisions get made," she added. "Sometimes not things that I want to see or learn about, but it's important.

"People need to speak up, people need to get the facts and do some research. And whichever side they come down on, they need to speak up, let their legislators know."

"That's one of the most important things to us," Davis agreed, "is that parents and residents of East Baton Rouge Parish get to make an informed decision."

Davis said she recently visited Cedarcrest Elementary to talk to parents about the proposal and was disappointed with what she found.

"I talked to 80 parents in the carpool line and three of them knew about this issue," she said. "And that's not a good thing, right? These are parents that are vested in public education right now, and they need to be informed."  

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