Poll: St. George residents more concerned with education than incorporation

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 8:00am

People who live in the proposed area of St. George would rather have a change in their school system than a change in their address.

That's according to a new poll that asked people about the importance of local control over schools versus the creation of a new city.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber paid for the poll. They say it proves people are interested in incorporation, but would be willing to skip St. George if it meant they got better public schools.

"About 72 percent of people in that area do not rate the school system as being good," noted Michael DiResto, Senior VP of Economic Competitiveness for BRAC.

Marketing firm Penn Schoen Berland conducted the poll, calling 405 likely voters who live in the proposed St. George area. They were asked five questions related to education and the incorporation effort. One of the important results was that education was twice as likely to be selected as the biggest issue facing East Baton Rouge Parish as anything else.

"Whether you're for incorporation or against incorporation, what we've found is that people are pretty united on one thing," DiResto claimed, "which is a structural change to improve student achievement and parental input in their children's education."

Through a spokesman, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System declined to comment on the results of the survey.

BRAC is pushing a set of bills at that would shrink the size of the East Baton Rouge school board and give most of the board's power to principals.

"Parents and community members would then have access, and feel more control of their schools by being closer to the actual decision-makers," DiResto said of the goal of the legislation.

East Baton Rouge Superintendent Bernard Taylor unveiled a similar reform plan earlier this month, giving principals more flexibility and authority in budgeting.

"We thought it was a positive step in the right direction," DiResto stated. "We don't believe those autonomies go, perhaps, as far as they could.

"We've also seen, in past years, that proposals by the Superintendent, and maybe with some tension with the school board, don't always get implemented. And in a political environment, with change at the school board level, there can be good ideas that come along, but then when you check back a few months later, there really isn't much movement. So what we've said is that, if there's agreement on a push toward greater autonomy, let's put it in statute, so therefore, it's there, it's in place, and it doesn't have to be subject to the whims of the political process at the school board level."

More than half of the people in the survey said they liked the idea of giving principals more autonomy. Additionally, twice as many said they want to change public schools without creating St. George as said they wanted a new city with a new school system. The St. George effort was born of a push to create an independent school system for the southeast part of the parish.

"The powers that be are trying to do everything they possibly can to stop a vote on this," said Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George incoporation committee, in a prepared statement. "This began as a fight for public education but has grown to represent much more than that. It's grown to represent the people's right to self-determination. Pass or fail, the residents of the southern unincorporated portion of East Baton Rouge Parish deserve the right to vote."

BRAC opposes the idea of St. George, but DiResto acknowledged that the effort has done something good.

"I definitely think that a positive conversation and discussion has developed," he mentioned, "and hopefully that will continue, and more and more people will be engaged in discussing the future of our public schools."

Critics argue that BRAC did not solicit enough public input before drafting its legislative proposals. While the results were not announced until Tuesday, DiResto said the survey influenced the creation of the bills.

"We conducted the poll in January," he stated. "We also conducted focus groups among parents of students in public schools, and parents of students in private schools."

One of the bills BRAC supports, to reduce the size of the school board, fell two votes shy of passing through the House of Representatives on Monday, in part because 14 members were absent. DiResto was confident it would come up for another vote in the future and would succeed.

To view a copy of Superintendent Taylor's proposal to give more authority to principals, click on the attachment below.

blueprint_for_transforming.doc853.64 KB

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