Incompetence, laziness and opacity are not permissible, even if you’re the good guys.

I’ve grown to accept the following conditions as facts, even if I don’t like them:

1) John White’s obvious goal is to destroy public education, and he has no clue how to actually improve education.

2) Majorities of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and of each house of the legislature are willing to let John White get away with whatever stupid, irresponsible, destructive ideas he wants to impose upon the people of Louisiana.

3) The Recovery School District has nothing to do with recovery and everything to do with privatization of public education.

4) The folks pushing for creation of one or more independent school districts, municipalities, fiefdoms or hamlets in southish Baton Rouge appear to know that they don’t like the status quo, but have absolutely no clue what they’d do differently to get better results (or even how those “better” results would be measured).

So, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS) is being attacked on many fronts.  However, its response has been underwhelming at best and malfeasant at worst.  The current school board engaged in the pretense of a national search (and then a do-over) and selected a candidate unanimously.  Never mind that the search firm couldn’t even properly list all the applicants, or that one of the prime qualifications for finalist status appeared to be participation in the same company’s overpriced pseudo-superintendent training program.

The board selected Dr. Bernard Taylor, a veteran of public-to-private disintegration of public education in Kansas City, MO, and Grand Rapids, MI.  They then completely abandoned their responsibility to oversee his work or to provide clear statements of policy priorities.  After more than a year of doing nothing they, with great fanfare, issued a so-called “strategic” plan full of grammatical, structural and policy errors.  Now Dr. Taylor is starting to muddle through his interpretation of the strategic plan’s goals.

In the latest example of flailing ineptitude, the Superintendent has proposed some piecemeal attempts to fix the mismatches between where students live and where schools are located, and between the demand for specialized magnets and the supply of such magnets.

As described by Charles Lussier in The Advocate (http://theadvocate.com/home/7533017-125/magnet-proposal-irks-board-members), the proposal on the table is to move a few magnet programs around, start a few more, and generally upset the apple cart without an overall plan.  I could happily criticize the specific proposals offered, but that misses the point:  The entire process is being handled poorly.

If I ruled the world, this is how the balance of neighborhood and magnet schools would be handled:

1) EBRPSS should produce a current, accurate, report indicating how many classrooms are available at each site and how they are currently being used.

2) The system should (either in-house or by using a consultant) designate several hundred well-defined neighborhoods to be used as the building blocks of neighborhood attendance zones.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have repeatedly offered to do this work but my proposal has not been accepted by the current or previous Superintendents.)

3) For each of the neighborhoods defined above, EBRPSS should tally how many students attend each of the various schools within the system.  These data could be used to gauge neighborhood support of the nearby schools and give useful information on where the student body actually resides.

4) The results of step #3 could be loosely compared to census data (or better yet with data shared by the larger private schools) to see where there are school-age children not currently enrolled in public schools.  At the very least, perhaps the Recovery School District could share information regarding the neighborhoods whence their students come.

5) Given solid information on the demand provided by students and the supply of instructional space, numerical optimization could be used to collect the neighborhoods defined in step #2 into the most logical attendance zones based on whatever objective criteria were proposed.

6) The optimization would clearly show where excess instructional capacity exists (where a magnet program might help the balance) or where there is a deficit of instructional space (suggesting a need for new construction or relocation of an existing magnet program).

7) Rather than having a mysterious game of chance dictate placement at magnet programs, the system could interview applicant families to find out the factors driving interest in magnet programs (as opposed to neighborhood schools).  The results could be used to make informed decisions about expansion of magnet programs or enhancements to neighborhood schools that would make them more attractive.

There are many other issues besides neighborhood/magnet balance that demand a thoughtful, methodical approach.  These issues include honoring the commitment to include retirees in the group health insurance plan, allocating personnel for maximum effectiveness and efficiency, using the budget process to reflect the most important activities on which to spend limited resources, preventing students from reaching the end of third grade without addressing any special educational needs they might have, and many others.

But perhaps the EBRPSS Board can use the current discussion regarding neighborhood and magnet schools to establish a precedent that they expect the Superintendent and his staff to supply useful information so that the Board can make wise decisions that come closer to serving the needs of the public.  Education is, in my view, an essential governmental function.  Because it is so important, there should be absolutely no tolerance for a central office that gives even the appearance of incompetence or laziness.  Neither should there be any tolerance for an administration that is unwilling or unable to share complete and accurate data regarding the system’s operations and plans.  Those of us who support public education (and specifically the wonderful teachers, librarians, counselors and support staff in EBRPSS) should demand exceptional performance from our elected representatives and the administrators.  The best defense against the attacks from the likes of John White, Patrick Dobard and Norman Browning is a good offense in the form of efficient, effective and transparent management and governance of the local school system.

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