School & District Management

La. Law Boosts, Complicates Local Chiefs’ Personnel Powers

By Christina A. Samuels — August 02, 2012 6 min read
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Louisiana superintendents will start this new school year with the power to hire and fire teachers without approval of local school boards, thanks to recent legislation passed by the Louisiana state legislature.

But school leaders in the state say that the law, which went into effect July 1 and is referred to as “Act I,” will not represent a substantive change in how effective superintendents interact with school boards—and may not eliminate the cases of micromanagement by boards that the law’s creator hoped to address.

That’s because school boards retain the power to get rid of superintendents they disagree with, said J. Rogers Pope, a Republican state representative who is currently the executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Executives. He voted against the law. In addition to putting the superintendent in the cross hairs of a displeased board’s ire, the law also eliminates some of the needed oversight capacity that a board can exercise over a school district chief and a principal, Mr. Pope said.

“We have a handful of superintendents that were probably in support of this,” said Mr. Pope, who was also a Louisiana school superintendent in Livingston Parish for 14 years. “But I think the majority of them were not in favor of it, to be honest.”

Robert L. Hammonds, who is legal counsel to the Louisiana School Boards Association, said he has heard similar concerns from superintendents. “Most of them are not jumping up and down and clapping about the ability to make all these decisions unilaterally,” he said. The law “gives the superintendent more authority, but it also gives them a whole lot more responsibility.”

But Stephen F. Carter, a Republican state representative from Baton Rouge who led the fight for passage of the bill, says that the new power was requested by superintendents, who told him they’d be able to move faster on personnel changes and school improvement efforts without what he described as micromanagement from school board members on issues related to hiring and firing of staff.

There was a groundswell of support from school leaders “realizing we were attempting to do the right thing,” he said in an interview. An additional provision in the law requires superintendents in districts rated C, D or F under state law—about 80 percent of the districts in the state—to have performance metrics written into their contracts, which are then submitted to the state for approval.

Adherence to those performance standards offers protection to school chiefs, Mr. Carter said. “School boards are not going to be getting rid of [superintendents] because people in the district are going to see that person trying to do a good job.”

Part of Package

Act I was one of a bundle of school overhaul bills signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in April. Much of the attention was focused on changes to teacher tenure laws. Instead of being granted tenure through evaluations and working in the state for three years, teachers hired after July 1 now must be rated highly effective five times in a six-year period to be tenured. Gov. Jindal also signed into law a publicly funded school voucher law.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at a Republican Party of Arkansas fundraising dinner in Hot Springs, Ark., last week. Gov. Jindal signed a bundle of school overhaul bills in April, including Act I.

The first part of Act I requires school districts to submit current contracts of school superintendents to the state. Of the 70 school districts in the state, 65 have submitted their contracts as required, four have interim superintendents and so are not yet bound by the new law, and one had not submitted a contract as of Aug. 1.

The second part of the law applies to school districts that are struggling to meet state standards. Any superintendent contract that is executed, negotiated, or renegotiated after July 1 must include performance targets such as student achievement measures, graduation rates, and the percentage of teachers with effective or highly effective ratings. Districts will be required to submit those contracts to the state every time they are renegotiated. Erin Bendily, the deputy state superintendent for policy and public affairs, said that the department of education has provided direct guidance to districts that have asked for assistance in drafting new contracts for their chiefs, and will develop model contracts soon.

Ms. Bendily stressed that the new laws are not an attack on school boards, but a way to focus their work on policy issues, while allowing principals and superintendents to move quickly to improve student outcomes. “You’ll still have a lot of power at the local school board level,” she said. “We are here to support them in the process, to be more effective school boards and effective policymakers.”

Indeed, Act I leaves unchanged the power of local boards to open school buildings and determine how many teachers and other school staff should be hired.

Lee Meyer, Sr., the vice president of the Louisiana Association of School Boards and a member of the board that oversees the 4,000-student Assumption Parish schools, said the legislation inappropriately paints all school boards in the state with a broad brush. Any micromanagement issues were only happening in certain areas, he said. In his parish, personnel recommendations from the superintendent usually were approved with little opposition from the board, he said.

His district, whose 2011 letter grade from the state is a D, will have to write performance metrics into the superintendent’s contract.

‘Not Ready’

“The school board can’t micromanage any more—now it’s the state,” Mr. Meyer said. He added, “The state [department of education] is not ready to implement all these new guidelines. They’re not ready for any of this.”

But Mr. Hammonds, the legal counsel for the state school board’s association, has given several presentations to school boards on the new law and says he has seen a mixed response. While some board members see the state as interfering in their roles, others are pleased that the new law eliminates lengthy teacher termination hearings that board members had to attend. Those meetings could sometimes last for several days, and will now be handled by three-person panels, he said.

Richard Lavergne, the superintendent of the 8,000-student St. Martin Parish schools, said he did not anticipate the law making a difference in his interactions with his board. He still has to be sensitive to his board’s wishes; for example, in the tight-knit community, only a few major hires have come from outside the district, he said. His board prefers personnel decisions to be handled that way, and he doesn’t anticipate changing.

“Around here, we’re very community-based. We take pride in trying to hold on to our local people,” he said.

Rodney Lafon, the superintendent of the 10,000-student St. Charles Parish school system, said that his board may have felt slighted by the new legislation, but that his relationship with them has not changed. Instead of submitting personnel changes to the board for approval, he now plans to submit them for informational purposes, he said.

School boards interfering in personnel decisions may be more prevalent in larger systems, and those situations may have been the ones seen by state lawmakers and the governor, he said. But his district didn’t face that issue, he said.

“We tried to say, why don’t you go fix [those problems] and leave all the rest of us alone?” Mr. Lafon said. “But they didn’t listen to us.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week

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