Government & Politics

BESE member to seek revote on RSD returning schools

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer

Hours after the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved Superintendent Paul Pastorek’s plan to let Recovery School District campuses consider a return to local control, one board member said that she plans to introduce a competing proposal at BESE’s next meeting.

“The motion I’m making at the next meeting will be to begin transferring eligible schools back and begin now,” said board member Linda Johnson, who is from the community of Plaquemine near Baton Rouge.

Johnson’s primary objection to the state superintendent’s plan is its timeline. She wants schools that are no longer failing to be able to exit the RSD this summer while Pastorek contends that eligible schools should make the move in the summer of 2012.

“Why should the RSD keep them another year?” she asked.

The Recovery School District was created by state legislation passed in 2003 as a response to a chronically failing schools in Orleans Parish and across the state. Under the law, schools transferred to the state-operated district are to remain under its control for a minimum of five years. If after five years, a school is no longer failing according to set state standards, it can return to its original school board’s control. This five-year period will expire at the end of the 2010-2011 school year for many Orleans Parish public schools.

The strategy approved by BESE allows schools with a school performance score of 80 or above, on a scale that ranges up above 150, this year to decide in fall 2011 whether to return to local control or stay in the RSD. Schools that choose to return to local control would make the move in time for the 2012-2013 school year.

As of now, eligible schools are expected to be Behrman, KIPP Believe, KIPP Central City Primary, KIPP McDonogh 15, Martin Luther King and New Orleans Charter Science & Math Academy, Louisiana Department of Education officials said.

After hearing from critics, Pastorek added a provision to make eligible for transfer any schools labeled “academically unacceptable,” a classification under which about 26 percent of RSD schools now fall.

Around 10 p.m. on Wednesday, BESE’s Recovery School District committee approved the plan 4-2, with New Orleans representative Louella Givens and southwest Louisiana member Dale Bayard voting no and Walter Lee of Mansfield abstaining. While Johnson had been a vocal opponent to the plan throughout the evening’s discussion, she left prior to the committee’s vote, leaving amid loud, raucous debate.

The next morning, the full board accepted the recommendation without further discussion or polling. A full board vote is not required if objections are not voiced when the item comes up on the meeting agenda.  The board overruled Johnson’s motions to table Thursday’s vote, saying that adequate discussion had occurred during Wednesday evening’s extended public hearing.

BESE President Penny Dastugue said in an interview Thursday evening that she did not think the board would support a motion to reconsider the plan for transferring school control.

“We spent many hours debating this, and the board was unwilling to discuss it today,” Dastugue said. “This is a plan that has been worked on since September, and I for one think it’s important that the schools know exactly what they have to achieve to be able to exit the RSD without the rules changing.”

Most of the controversy surrounding the plan rests on that choice to stay in the RSD. While Pastorek and other state officials say the choice is the ultimate in local control because it gives each community school the option to choose who oversees it, the Orleans Parish School Board says that letting schools be overseen by the state if they are no longer failing violates state law.

Critics argue that in addition to violating the law that created the RSD, the state is also disregarding basic tenants of representative democracy.

“The community has a right to choose in an election who it wants to run its schools,” said Johnson.

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