Louisiana superintendents will start this new school year with the power to hire and fire teachers without approval of local school boards, thanks to a recent law passed by the 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 measure’s sponsor hoped to address.
That’s because school boards retain the power to get rid of superintendents they disagree with, said Rep. J. Rogers Pope, a Republican who is also 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 local 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 lot whole lot more responsibility.”
But state Rep. Stephen F. Carter, a Republican 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 goals written into their contracts, which are then submitted to the state for approval.
“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,” he said.
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 must be rated highly effective five times in a six-year period. Gov. Jindal also signed into law a publicly funded school voucher law.
The first part of Act I requires school districts to submit current contracts of school superintendents to the state. Of the 70 districts in the state, 65 have done so, 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 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, among other powers.
Seen as Broad Brush
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. In his district, 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 yardsticks into the superintendent’s contract.
“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.”
But Mr. Hammonds, the legal counsel for the state school boards association, has given several presentations to boards on the new law and seen a mixed response. Some board members see the state as interfering in their roles, but others are pleased that the law eliminates lengthy teacher-termination hearings that board members had to attend. Those meetings 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. He doesn’t anticipate that changing.
“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 legislation, but that his relationship with members has not changed. Instead of submitting personnel changes to the board for approval, he will submit them for informational purposes.
School boards interfering in personnel decisions may be more typical of larger systems, 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 as La. Law Reshuffles Personnel Powers in Districts