H/t to the Mighty Favrog and the Daily Kingfish for first calling statewide attention to this story. (I hope the Mighty Favrog doesn’t mind, but I’ve borrowed some of his pictures of Baton Rouge schools).batonrougehigh2.jpg

Rolfe McCollister, campaign treasurer for Bobby Jindal and publisher of The Baton Rouge Business Report, recently published an editorial suggesting that citizens should vote against a one-cent renewal tax to improve Baton Rouge schools and provide much-needed raises for public school teachers. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would trust this man with financial advice, considering his involvement in a campaign ethics law violation (over a $100,000 undisclosed donation) while working for the latest Jindal gubernatorial campaign.

McCollister attempts to suggest that because the East Baton Rouge Parish School System has a positive balance of $78 million, there is absolutely no need to renew (no one is asking for additional taxation) a one-cent sales tax. Yet, at the same time, McCollister belittles the performance of the EBRPSS, using pre- and post-Katrina student population numbers and “performance scores” in order to imply fiscal irresponsibility and negligence. I quote (my responses are not indented):

• The student count for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in 2005-06 was 48,454. The 2007 count was 44,154. That’s a decrease of 8.9% of your student body [La. Dept. of Education Financial & Statistical Report, 157th edition, September 2007].

As Ryan at the Daily Kingfish pointed out, a net decrease of 4,300 students in 2007 is not surprising at all, considering the student population was probably influenced by the influx of New Orleanians during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The decreasing student population is not necessarily indicative of poor performance; it indicates the number of families who moved back to New Orleans. Either way, if McCollister had actually wanted to be objective, he would have considered the pre-Katrina numbers, which placed student population around 46,408 students. The total net decrease both before and after the Hurricanes is around 2,000 students. This could be the result of a number of different factors. Does Mr. McCollister believe somehow that the public should base important infrastructural repairs and teacher salaries on yearly total student population trends? Should the school system and its teachers be responsible for ensuring the constant supply of new-born babies in their districts? Seriously.

• In the 2005-06 year, the EBR system had expenses of about $425 million. That means a per-pupil expenditure of $8,521. That’s higher than every private school tuition in our parish except one. This does not count an additional $33.9 million in facilities acquisition and construction services [La. Dept. of Education Financial & Statistical Report, 157th edition, September 2007].

batonrougehigh43.jpgWith all due respect to Mr. McCollister, as any person who attended or who works for a private school will tell you, the per-pupil expenditures always represent a fraction of tuition. Most private schools are underwritten by endowments, private donations, and targeted grants. Almost every legitimate private university, college, and high school in the nation charges less in tuition than the total per-pupil expenditure. For example, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and other elite universities offer a $1,000,000 per-pupil education for around $40,000 a year. Unfortunately, public schools are not often afforded the same financial cushion. That’s why comparing per-pupil expenditures with private school tuition is dangerously disingenuous.

• As I pointed out, in the last two years, enrollment has declined by more than 5,500, and it is expected to decline next fall. But despite fewer students, the current BESE budget includes an increase of $10.7 million for EBR. That’s right, fewer students and more money from the state [La. Dept. of Education Financial & Statistical Report, 157th edition, September 2007]. Do you realize the EBR system had 67,000 students in 1979?

You didn’t already point that out, and it’s not true. Public school enrollment has dropped by around 2,000 students in the last two years. I suppose Mr. McCollister believes that a net decrease of around 2,000 students necessitates the cessation of funding. Because, Lord knows, Baton Rouge schools don’t even need to maintain their current budgets. I must admit, though, that I am confused: Should voters reject the tax because Baton Rouge is doing so well or doing so poorly?

• In addition to the state windfall, have you have noticed around town the increases in number of businesses, new construction, population and economic strength? This all means more money in property and sales taxes for the school system.

No, not really. But I have noticed an increase in TIFs, Go-Zone projects, and Renewal Zone projects, each of which may be important but do not create the immediate tax impact Mr. McCollister describes.

• EBRPSS also has general fund surpluses. It has an “unreserved/undesignated fund” of $68.7 million; “unreserved/designated” of $49 million; and “reserve” of $9.3 million. That totals $127 million. I believe they are using $10 million in this year’s operating budget and propose taking $20 million to put into Proposition 1, which is school construction. It still leaves millions.

batonrougehigh50.jpgTypical Friedman School economic theory: If government ever carries enough assets to cover its liabilities, it must somehow be malfunctioning. I suppose deficit spending would be a better approach.

• As for results, the District Performance Scores for 2005-06 have the EBR district ranked 45th out of 59 districts. We received one star. The Zachary district ranked first with three stars. The West Feliciana district ranked second, the Livingston district fifth and the Ascension district ninth. State Superintendent Paul Pastorek explained to me that the five-star system equates to grades of A, B, C, D and F. In other words, the one star we got was the same as an F grade.

All the more reason to invest. Is Mr. McCollister implying that struggling students in struggling districts somehow deserve less funding and attention than privileged students in higher-performing districts? Can anyone see a relationship there that would call for additional or at least sustained funding?

• The consequences of these results hit home hard last week when the state stepped in and took over four failing schools in EBR which had consistently scored “academically unacceptable.” So, our system with more money than ever, now has even fewer schools to manage.

Again, the solution is not to abandon your schools. If Baton Rouge has a problem with the way their school system is managed and operated, then elect a new School Board. But taking away much-needed funding will only exacerbate the problem.

The Mighty Favrog says it better than I can:

Baton Rouge never has been, is not now nor ever will be “America’s Next Great City (TM)” so long as it is dominated by reactionary, spite-driven, race-tinged politics. It will never progress beyond “Southern backwater” in the eyes of the nation until folks down there figure out that they’re all going to pull together or fly to pieces.

That starts with public education. Building a capable, literate and skilled workforce for a state that currently doesn’t have one is a lot easier if you don’t — in a fit of pique — throw your school system back to Square Zero in the name of “reform.”
But then again, we are talking about my hometown, Baton Rouge.
They say that a dog won’t crap in its own bed. That may be true for Phideaux, but not for the Baton Rouge that I know and love . . . and hate. (They get complicated, my feelings do.)
The Baton Rouge I know — and the Baton Rouge evidenced by the deplorable conditions at my alma mater, and by that anti-tax McCollister column — not only will crap in its own bed, it’ll then plop its children in the stinking pile.
Change you can believe in (to steal a slogan) is a city overcoming a crappy legacy. A big part of that would be renewing the school sales tax to fix dilapidated school buildings and raise teachers’ pay — a first step on a challenging journey toward a better future for Baton Rouge’s children.

11 thoughts

  1. While denying funding is not the answer, EBRP schools are in dire straits. Zachary broke off, and now has one of the best school systems in the state. Baker left before them, and now has one of the worst systems. Students are leaving the public system for the private schools, which seem to be doing well. We need to figure out the answer, as a poorly educated populace apparently has more to do with La’s lack of business development than ethics. It will be very difficult to overcome the entrenched bureaucracy of the current system to make the necessary changes, but Zachary has the model 15 minutes to the north.

    I seriously question the stats on private school funding. Country Day tuition goes up every year, as do their outside fundraising efforts from parents. Perhaps true at the college level, but EBRP is competing with private elementary and secondary schools, that get their funding from parents’ pockets…parents who already pay taxes for public schools.

  2. I can’t put links in here, but if you Google Rolfe McCollister, The Children’s Charter School, and Baton Rouge Area Foundation, you will see the following: 1) McCollister has an axe to grind because he was thwarted in his efforts to expand his charter school in EBR, 2) BRAF, a group of brahmins (or as close to brahmins as BR has), donates disproportionately to private schools as opposed to public education (donated over $60k to McCollister’s in ’03), 3) McCollister and his country clubber cohorts have been working against public education for a while.

    The “facts and figures” McCollister uses were submitted to Congress in about 2003 in support of the Childrens Charter School. The 1979 figures are a joke. In 1982, forced busing started in EBR, which started white flight. Before 1982, there were few private schools, and the school census in Ascension, Livingston, and West Feliciana, where white flighters went to roost, were but a fraction of what they are now. No wonder their numbers are better– they don’t have nearly the population of hard-core inner city poverty.

    McCollister has some serious, undisclosed bias on this topic.

  3. “T. Wong”-great name, by the way. Brings back memories, as does the forced busing of 1982. I was in high school then, and that was the beginning of the downfall for public schooling in BR. People voted with their feet, so you are correct, the remaining kids are lower socioeconomic status residents. Magnet schools, charters schools and the like are efforts to get these kids and their parents back into the system, but if the system stinks, why would you send your kids there? The status quo is not working, so they have to do somehing to turn things around. Zachary is a great model, but they never had the inner city problems that BR had, so it was easier for them.

  4. After going to the Daily Kingfish article, it appears there are many good things going on with EBRP schools. One idea, at the bottom, was contracts with students, parents and teachers, which is a fantastic idea. Getting parents back involved with their kids educations is the best answer around, we just need some innovative ways to do that.

  5. Don’t mean to harp on an EBR issue in a CENLA blog, but Jindal’s people will bring this to a school system near you.

    Parental involvement is a key to success, agreed. So is the involvement of EBR business and community leaders. If they continue to bail, ignore, neglect, abandon, discourage, and fail to hold the school system accountable, it will never be what it ought to be.

    There are many good stories to tell about the EBR system. The country clubbers can’t tell them, though because of their intentional disconnect.

    My daughter graduated from BRHS (Jindal’s alma mater and mine) last year, and my son attends a GT program. They got/are getting a good education academically. They also get to see more of what the world really looks like. They go to school, not a country club. And guess what– parental involvement is high.

    The real problem with EBR schools stems from systemic poverty. Could it be improved? Probably, but that will require meaningful participation by community leaders.

    Mark my words– McCollister and his crew will be pushing for vouchers statewide. I have no problem with vouchers if they give the inner city poor the same chance to attend Episcopal High that the wealthy have. But the Baton Rouge community leaders will begin a push for vouchers as welfare for the upper classes. Watch it happen.

  6. I don’t think vouchers will fly, especially not with the country club set. While they would appreciate not having to pay so much for schooling, they don’t want their kids going to school with the plebians. The real problem with vouchers is the strings that come attached. If private schools accept public money, they are going to have to accept public rules. One of the main advantages private schools have is freedom to get rid of disruptive kids, fire crummy teachers, ignore federal mandates, etc. Private schools now have lots of diversity, with minorities and ethnic students whose parents recognize the higher quality of education provided.

    I agree with your point about systemic poverty in EBRP. 25-30 years ago the flight to suburbs and private school system was certainly partially caused by rascism. But now even minorities are attending private schools, b/c the education is better. One of the advantages we have here in Alexandria is less of that, though it is somewhat of a problem. My kids graduated from ASH, and got a decent education, but the quality offered by the private schools here is no better than a public education. As Bolton slides further into the abyss, that may change.

  7. There has been an increase in TIFs, Go Zone bond financing and recovery effort projects. You have to be careful here in trying to imply these are not creating tax dollars. Depending on how the TIF is created, money dedicated to the school system cannot be used by the taxing district. Nor can money that is dedicated to any other purpose for that matter. Go Zone bond money has its own source of allocation and is not tapping local sales taxes to pay the debt – this is being paid back through the money from the federal government. Federal programs rarely use local taxes.

    What can be impacting tax collections for schools is the exemption on property taxes for manufacturers. You would have to examine the number of industrial projects in the past few years that have received tax abatement in that particular parish. There probably have not been that many sinmply because the attainment issue which makes it more difficult to place a manufacturing facility in that parish.

    As for vouchers we got our first whiff of that last year in the regular session. A Senator from St Landry parish wanted to actually issue a tax credit for parents who are paying private school tuition instead of sending their kids to public schools for K-12 education. As you can guess, there was strong opposition to the legislation. It also didn’t help that he would have received the tax credit himself.

    Parental involvement is a must. Most of us remember our parents showing up on parent night, interacting with our teachers, the fact that schools had PTAs. With both parents working and with many kids now being raised by one parent or worse grandparents, this has become a thing of the past. Teachers are taking on a bigger role. They are becoming educator, counselor and parent in some cases. Giving advice on more than just English, math and science.

    We have a unique experiment in Rapides which is providing additional counselors and mentor in the classrooms of several schools where drop out rates are high and test scores are low. The mentors can work with the students after school and can even go into their homes at night if the parent or guardian permits. It seems to be making a difference.

  8. Bird, this was the point I was trying to make:

    Although there definitely appears to be a ton of new commercial/industrial activity and development in and around East Baton Rouge Parish, much of the activity and investment is being spawned and facilitated by these special taxing districts, federal tax credits, and even preservation tax credits.

    In those cases, demand isn’t really being driven from the bottom up; it’s being driven from the top down. And while I don’t want to imply that this has created artificial markets… I still think it would be foolish for anyone to believe the EBRPSS can sustain itself without the one-cent tax due to (the perception that) new industry is suddenly pouring in new tax revenue for the school district. There is no evidence to suggest this is actually the case.

    And thank for you the clarification about exemptions in TIFs for schools.

    Anyway, yes, I agree with you.

    I am interested in this program going on here in Rapides. Does it have a name?

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