Friday, February 20, 2009

School boards and Pastorek fight over new school board laws

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — To Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, an overhaul of the laws governing local school boards would reform and modernize education.

Local school board members see it as a direct assault against them to consolidate power in Baton Rouge.

Pastorek wants to put term limits on board members, take away their salaries and limit their authority over school superintendents. If the state education board agrees next month, the political tug-of-war will head to the Legislature.

That will drop lawmakers into a heated dispute testing political alliances. A dozen state legislators are former school board members. Many others have close relationships with local boards.

"A lot of political careers have been launched in school boards, so I think there's going to be resistance there," Pastorek said. "I think the real question is: What's the right thing to do for children? I'm hoping that legislators will put aside their political support with local school boards and make an honest assessment."

Pastorek said he sees the proposals as important reforms. He said he looked to those he considers model states, including Texas and Kentucky, for ideas.

"We do have some real challenges with some school boards around the state, school boards who micromanage, school boards who have relatives who are in administration whose contracts get approved by school boards, people who have been around 30 to 40 years and their experience of what schools should be are far different than what is going on today," Pastorek said.

So, Pastorek suggests limiting how long school board members can serve, capping their pay to either a per diem for the days they work or to reimburse expenses, restricting family of school board members working in the same districts and reducing authority of board members in hiring and firing.

Pastorek's department will present recommendations for legislation in March to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, whose members will decide which to pursue with the Legislature. BESE member Glenny Lee Buquet of Houma said she thinks many of the proposals will be forwarded to lawmakers.

Nearly all the ideas have generated opposition.

"Paul is doing all that he can to dismantle public education as it exists now. He has indicated that he feels like school board members are a part of the problem and not a part of the solution, but it's difficult for us to understand that," said Nolton Senegal, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Rep. Joe Harrison, a former Assumption Parish school board member, said he's received numerous calls from board members complaining they've had no input. Harrison, R-Labadieville, said he has reservations about the proposals and expects many could face a tough time in the Legislature.

The ideas are the latest in a series of disagreements between Pastorek and school boards.

The education superintendent successfully fought for state takeovers of 10 failing public schools in Baton Rouge and Shreveport against the wishes of local officials. Pastorek got into a public disagreement in Monroe after he asked for an investigation into the rehiring of the schools superintendent and an attempt to put a board member's daughter in a school district job for which she wasn't qualified. State Police decided against investigating the matter.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President Jerry Arbour said the state should be debating more pressing education needs than Pastorek's proposals.

"I think it's a waste of the Legislature's time and effort. I think we've got other things as far as education-related matters that we need to address other than just trying to take away local control," Arbour said.

Senegal and Arbour said term limits weren't needed because voters in the state's 69 public school districts can decide whether to re-elect members every four years. Senegal said state law already caps board members' salaries at $800 per month, or $900 for board presidents. Arbour said calculations showed if board members were given per diem payments for the days they worked, it could cost taxpayers more.

Only a handful of states have statewide term limits on local school boards, and pay varies widely, according to the National School Boards Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Beyond pay and tenure, Pastorek wants to change the state nepotism law that allows family of local board members who work as teachers, in some instances, to be promoted to administrative or principal jobs. Pastorek said such promotions create negative public perceptions.

Senegal said board members must inform the state ethics board if a relative works in the school system and recuse themselves from votes involving family members. He said he believes those provisions are sufficient.

The most important changes, Pastorek said, would restrict the boards' authority over their school superintendents by requiring a two-thirds vote to fire a superintendent and allowing superintendents to hire and fire staff without their approval.

"There are many school board members who dictate who the superintendent will and will not select. It's done in very subtle ways, but I hear it all the time," he said, declining to give examples.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has yet to weigh in on Pastorek's ideas, saying he would need to read specific legislation before commenting. But he expressed support for Pastorek, saying the superintendent was "doing a great job."


Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education:

Louisiana School Boards Association:

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