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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.