In Baton Rouge, a familiar story as school district fractures

This large school district’s future is uncertain as a growing state-run system takes on more schools and some residents plan to carve out a new school system within the existing district lines.

Which district am I talking about? No, it’s not Shelby County Schools- it’s the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.

Four hundred miles south of Memphis, some residents of Baton Rouge, La. are planning to create a new city called St. George that includes parts of the current city, largely in order to allow the creation of a brand new school district. Meanwhile, the state-run Recovery School District plans to begin running more low-performing schools within the Parish.

New School System

The new school district that would accompany the creation of St. George has been in the works for more than a year. Proponents of the group have formed a website called Local Schools for Local Children explaining why they think a smaller school district will benefit their children. Three other areas in the Parish – Zachary, Central, and Baker – have formed their own districts since 2003.

Though Baton Rouge has already had new districts break away, school officials are concerned about the financial implications of yet another new district. East Baton Rouge school officials said, for instance, that the legacy district was left with pension and building burdens from the first round of new school districts. One school official said that some teachers retired from the city school district and gained pensions, only to start work again at one of the newer school districts.

A recent report from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation highlighted negative financial implications of St. George on the city of Baton Rouge.

“What I’m worried about with all these choices and breakaways is that at the end of the day, if all this happens, it will bankrupt what’s left,” said Bernard Taylor, the superintendent of the East Baton Rouge district, last spring.

A history of fraught race relations undergirds the changes. The new city of St. George would be 70 percent white, while the City of Baton Rouge is 55 percent black, according to a report from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The new city also encompasses some of the more well-off parts of town.

Proponents of the new district say the focus on those issues is misleading and distracting, and that their concerns aren’t being heard by Baton Rouge’s city hall. They believe the smaller district will allow for better schools.

State-run District Expands

Meanwhile, several schools in the city have been targeted for takeover by the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees most schools in nearby New Orleans. The RSD, like Tennessee’s Achievement School District, takes over low-performing schools and has used chartering as a major way to improve their performance. The RSD was the first district of its kind.

Its role in Baton Rouge has been particularly controversial, as the RSD took over a handful of schools in the city several years ago and turned them over to charter operators – but those charters eventually floundered and are now directly run by the RSD. The RSD is now trying to court higher-performing charter operators to run its schools.

While advocates are hopeful that the new schools will help improve schools that have historically been low-performing, superintendent Taylor also expressed concerns about the RSD – and, indeed, maneuvered some programs around last spring in order to avoid having schools taken over.

“The district wants to reform ourselves, and we’re engaged in that work,” he said in an interview with Education Week last spring.

“I don’t know of any superintendent who wants to see [schools] taken over by an entity whose primary focus is not just the students in that area,” Taylor said.

Similar concerns have arisen in Memphis, where some parents and teachers have protested the state’s interventions. The ASD has engaged in a months-long community engagement process to address those concerns.

Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the RSD, said, “We don’t want to give up on bringing in empowering, higher-quality teachers and leaders just because the first group we tried weren’t of the ilk we need.”

Baton Rouge and Memphis

The connection between the Shelby County and East Baton Rouge is not just in those political parallels: As the RSD and ASD are both expanding, Baton Rouge found itself competing with Memphis for charter schools. Chris Meyer, the executive director of New Schools Baton Rouge, which recruits and supports new charter schools in the city, said that YES! Prep had visited both Memphis and Baton Rouge last year.

The ASD in Tennessee and RSD in Louisiana are “pushing each other to recruit the best,” said Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the Recovery School District.

This post just scratches the surface. For those interested in more, The Advocate in Baton Rouge has been following the schools and plans for a new city closely. This Education Week story from last spring also lays out some of the issues.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.