Published Online: March 26, 2009

Louisiana School Boards Resist Push to Trim Powers

Louisiana state Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek continues to draw fire from local school board members for his efforts to limit their authority, tenure, and compensation.

The plan “attacks the basis of local control by local school boards,” the Louisiana Association of School Boards bluntly declared in a resolution passed at its annual convention in early March.

Some local boards have passed similar resolutions in opposition to the plan, which includes a measure to block local boards from intervening in decisions to hire and fire school personnel.

But Mr. Pastorek is hoping the legislature will take up the hiring authority measure and other proposed changes to state law governing school boards during its regular session, which begins in late April.

“It’s an old form of patronage that extends from the Huey Long era, and it’s time to let it go,” Mr. Pastorek said in an interview, alluding to the state’s powerful—and controversial—Depression-era governor and U.S. senator.

Mr. Pastorek’s plan, which included draft legislative language, failed to gain traction with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a March 11 meeting. The state body declined to endorse it and instead called for a task force to study the matter.

But this week, Rep. Stephen F. Carter, a Republican from Baton Rouge who serves on the House education committee, unveiled his own legislative plan for school boards. Although crafted separately from the state superintendent’s effort, it echoes some of the same ideas.

“Too many boards are getting too involved in the day-to-day operations” of schools, Rep. Carter said in an interview. He argued that this hinders the ability of local superintendents to do their job effectively.

Advocacy Group Input

Mr. Carter’s proposals were developed in consultation with the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, two prominent state advocacy groups.

Rep. Carter’s plan would make it illegal for an individual board member or group of board members to interfere with district personnel decisions by the local superintendent, such as hiring, firing, or transfers. It also would clarify state law to better prevent nepotism by school board members in hiring, and require a supermajority of the board to hire or remove a superintendent.

In addition, the bill would impose limits of three consecutive terms on board members; limit pay for board members by allowing only a per diem for meetings attended, up to a maximum of $200 per month; and end board members’ eligibility for district health-insurance benefits.

The state superintendent said he’s supportive of Mr. Carter’s proposals, even as they address a narrower set of issues than his own proposal and vary somewhat in the details.

Despite the setback with the state board, Mr. Pastorek said he will keep promoting the school board reforms.

“I’m going to be loud and proud,” he said. “It’s absolutely necessary that this be done.”

Mr. Pastorek argued that the two most important ingredients in Mr. Carter’s plan are the measures to prevent interference by school boards in hiring decisions and to limit members' tenure.

“We need new blood on our school boards in Louisiana,” Mr. Pastorek said. “We have some members who have been sitting for 30 years.”

But Nolton J. Senegal, the executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Boards, said term limits should be a local issue.

“It shouldn’t be a directive that comes from Paul Pastorek’s office that in his infinite wisdom, we should have limits on school boards,” he said. “In addition to that, a lot of the [board] members are saying if their constituents who have voted them into office decide they haven’t done a good job, they can vote them out of office. That’s a term limit in itself.”

Mr. Carter concedes that the changes he envisions for school boards are controversial, but said he’s working hard to get his fellow lawmakers on board.

“A lot of legislators are very interested in this,” he said.

Vol. 28, Issue 27

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