Staring down low achievement and high drop-out rates in Louisiana’s public school system, the state superintendent and a coalition of public-interest groups make a case for school board reform.
Paul Pastorek is an engaging but unremarkable fellow at first contact. Tulane preppy in his mid-50s, the state superintendent of schools poked a short stick into a big hornet’s nest with recent proposals to revamp the way the state educates its public-school students. The hornets in this case are the hundreds of school board members across Louisiana, and the association that represents them. Their nest is the job itself and its perks, including what amounts to a salary (albeit a modest one), district health benefits (often times for family members as well), and, perhaps above all else, a measure of political power.
But Paul Pastorek, a lawyer by training, wants to take that away, and his proposals, known collectively as the “Pastorek Plan” and legislatively as a package of bills by Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Steve Carter, have many a school board member howling. Pastorek doesn’t mince words, either. “Many school board members in our state have been on the school board for more than 30 years,” he points out. “There are lots of them who have been on the school board for more than 20 years. My argument is, if you’ve been on the board for this long and you get the results that you’ve gotten, then you need to go.”
School boards are not alone in their condemnation of the plan. Teachers’ associations, what some may refer to as unions, generally oppose the proposals as well because, reading between the lines in the plan, some of those proposals will in all probability erode the system of teacher tenure. Earlier this spring, Pastorek was figuratively yanked by a shepherd’s crook off stage at the convention of the Louisiana School Board Association in Lake Charles, where, in a demonstration of either obstinate bravery or foolhardiness, he showed up to address members only days after his intentions became widely known. According to an account, Pastorek had 30 minutes to speak, was 10 minutes into his address and hadn’t even mentioned school board reform before he was compelled to cut his presentation short.
Pastorek’s vision for public education in Louisiana swivels on three points: dramatic improvement in academic achievement, elimination of the achievement gap between races and socioeconomic groups, and preparing students to be competitive in a global economy. But above it all is a simple, some would say, radical premise: Any child, irrespective of his/her poverty level or dismal home life, can be effectively educated. “I think we need to pursue a big idea, and if we decide to pursue a big idea, it means that the world as we know it in public education has to dramatically change,” Pastorek insists.
In May 2008, acting on anecdotal evidence of micro-management by local school boards, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education directed Pastorek to study the issue and come up with some recommendations. Pastorek returned with six proposals relating to school boards, as outlined by the Public Affairs Research Council in its endorsement of the plan last month:
• Limiting the ability of school boards and school board members to involve themselves in district hiring and firing decisions
• Requiring the approval of a super-majority of school board members before a superintendent can be hired or fired
• Setting term limits for school board members
• Changing the compensation for school board members to a limited per diem system
• Strengthening state nepotism laws that govern school boards and superintendents
• Prohibiting school board members from taking part in district health insurance plans
Photo by Robin May
The distance between where Pastorek wants to go, and where Louisiana public education now stands, is many leagues: According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, the state ranks in the middle of the pack nationwide for class size, expenditures per student/school and for teacher pay, but we scrape the floor in performance rankings and hover near the ceiling for dropout rates. Pastorek argues that Louisiana must not only get students through high school, but also into some kind of technical school after that, if not college. “People tell me, ‘Hey Paul, listen, not every kid is going to be able to go to college. Not every kid has what it takes to go to college.’ And I say, crap. That is crap. OK? And we have to say that it is.”
A former BESE member appointed to the state super job by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and retained by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Paul Pastorek is selling reform, but is anyone buying? In fact, Pastorek’s quest to streamline how local school boards operate has won the backing of some heavy hitters, the Council for a Better Louisiana and PAR among them. On Monday, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce announced the development of a position paper in support of school board reform, which echoes the Pastorek Plan point for point but also seeks to require school board members to have a high-school diploma and to receive state-sanctioned training upon being elected to a school board. A few weeks ago, chamber leadership met with members of the Lafayette Parish School Board to inform them of the vote. “If your basic structure is broken,” says chamber board Chairman Kam Movassaghi, referring to the way school boards currently operate, “no matter how much paint you put on the wall, your roof is still going to leak. We need to fix the structure.”
The premise of Pastorek’s model is that school boards should concern themselves with education policy — textbooks and curricula — and little more, and then get out of the way of the superintendent, who should act as chief executive officer of the school system. There are examples right here in Louisiana of this model — focused boards and superintendents overseeing operations and accountable to the board for achieving goals — producing results. Livingston and West Feliciana parishes operate in varying degrees by the model championed by Pastorek. Both are in the top tier of the state in terms of district performance. “The proper structure,” argues Movassaghi, “would be a board that would be qualified and would act as a vision, policy, guideline board. The job of the board is to set the vision for what our educational system is going to be five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.” PAR President Jim Brandt chimes in with his endorsement of Pastorek’s proposals: “Louisiana’s public education system continues to hug the bottom of most lists measuring quality and achievement. What is clear is that maintaining the status quo is not acceptable, and change is needed now.”
But BESE punted the issue to the Legislature when Pastorek returned with his recommendations. Rather than voting on approval of the proposals, the board voted to ask lawmakers to create a task force to study school board reform, essentially keeping its own hands clean. Anyone familiar with Louisiana politics knows, “further study” and “task force” are code for “out of sight, out of mind.” In its March 19 endorsement of the plan, PAR concludes: “The reforms being proposed are logical and straightforward, and most of the debate surrounding them has more to do with turf battles than anything else. Rather than banish them to a task force, the Legislature should implement these reforms this session. No further study is needed.”
For the superintendent to be strong, we have to have the right structure,” asserts Greg Davis, former chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and a strong supporter of the Pastorek initiatives. “Right now we don’t have the right structure. The school board reform initiatives are a very, very important first step to try to get us there. The superintendent has to have the ability to hold his staff accountable to perform, and if they don’t perform, he has to have the ability to do something about that. And if they perform in an exemplary way, he has to have the ability to do something about that. He has to reward great performance, and he has to be able to bring about some type of personnel action when there is poor performance. Right now, superintendents don’t have the authority to do that, because right now, any personnel action, they have to get the permission of the school board. So it is not possible to have strong, dynamic leadership coming from the superintendent because of the way we are structured right now.”
CABL and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry were the principal forces behind the legislation pre-filed last Friday by Rep. Carter. Because the session that begins next week is a fiscal session, individual lawmakers are limited to filing no more than five non-fiscal bills. CABL, LABI and Carter formed a working group and honed the legislative package down to four. “As we’ve been able to talk to more and more legislators,” says Barry Erwin, CABL president, “I think they’re realizing this stuff isn’t so terrible.”
The Carter legislation closely resembles Pastorek’s recommendations, and, according to Erwin, the state superintendent was often at the margins of the Carter-CABL-LABI working group. Its recommendations:
Take the profit out of school board service (only per diems and expense reimbursements)
Institute a three-term limit for service on a school board
Keep school boards out of personnel matters (hiring and firing) and require a two-thirds board majority to hire or fire a superintendent
Tighten nepotism laws
“All of these things either just tweak or make some additions to things that we have in current law,” argues Erwin, “or they follow precedents that we have elsewhere.” For example, the Louisiana Constitution clearly states that school board members “shall serve without pay.” According to Erwin, the intention of the no-salary bill is not punitive, and no one expects school board members to serve for free or at their own expense. Carter’s legislation proposes school board members be reimbursed at a rate of $50 per meeting, four meetings max per month. That’s $200 per month, plus travel expenses. Lafayette Parish School Board members receive an $800 per month expense allowance (LPSB President Carl Lacombe gets $900 per month), and can be reimbursed for travel as well. “Clearly there’s a spirit in the constitution that says school board members shall serve without pay,” asserts Erwin.
BESE President Keith Guise has taken issue with the proposed limit on school boards being involved in the hiring and firing of school system personnel as well as term limits for school board members. CABL responded to Guise’s reservations in an April 7 release:
“In the past decade Louisiana has provided strong school accountability measures, massive new funds to districts, higher teacher pay, comprehensive testing and higher standards, stronger teacher qualifications, access to pre-K, new reading and math programs, classroom technology, and much more. More clearly defining the proper role of school boards is simply the next step. We urge school board members to join us in this continued quest for educational excellence.”
Fat chance. As Independent Weekly staff writer Nathan Stubbs details on this page, school boards have been anything but willing to join CABL, PAR and others in the move to reform themselves. Lafayette Parish School Board members have been openly opposed to the idea and have even met with members of the Acadiana delegation to the Legislature to lobby for opposition, leading Davis to conclude: “The public education system around the state of Louisiana will not reform itself. The leaders of these public education systems, the school boards, the superintendents, they way they are structured, I believe, inhibits their ability to reform.”
But there are examples of school board members embracing reform. Actually, there is an example of a school board member embracing reform. In a letter sent to Pastorek obtained by The Independent, Calcasieu Parish School Board member Bill Jongbloed, a longtime teacher, coach, principal and school system administrator who two years ago won a board seat, writes, “When I read that you were attempting to overhaul school board member operations, I was elated. Frankly, I ran for school board because I was angry at the school board member abuse of power that I witnessed during my years as a principal and in the central office. I made a commitment to myself that I would do whatever I could to try to right the ship and educate board members about what they are and are not to do.”
Jongbloed goes on to detail 10 instances of board micro- and mismanagement, and says he could name at least 20 more. Point No. 2:
“A new board member gets elected and wants the superintendent to fire or move the principal of the elementary school in his district. She happened to be the wife of the defeated board member. The superintendent said that he couldn’t do that, and the new board member said that he would remember that at the next superintendent’s contract renewal. He did and the superintendent did not have his contract renewed with a vote of eight to seven.”
However, Lafayette Parish Superintendent Burnell Lemoine, who opposes school board reform, says he has never encountered an instance in which a Lafayette school board member has attempted to interfere with his job.
While many Capitol watchers give Carter’s package about as much chance of survival as a pig at a boucherie — many don’t even expect it to emerge from committee resembling its former self — CABL’s Erwin says he’s “cautiously optimistic” the legislation has legs. “My point is these things are not all that radical once you get down to it,” Erwin says. “It’s radical to go take over a school system and give it to somebody else like they did in New Orleans, or like they did in Chicago, Washington or New York. That’s radical. Tweaking some things that we’re doing in our existing law is not radical.” But Erwin concedes that if only one of the four bills were to survive, supporters believe the bill prohibiting school boards from participating in personnel decisions and requiring a two-thirds majority to hire or fire a superintendent is paramount. “It’s a distraction from what you’re trying to get that board to be doing in the first place, which is directing the superintendent toward goals that the board sets and holding the superintendent accountable for doing those,” Erwin argues. “If the superintendent’s goal is raise the scores in the schools, the superintendent ought to be trying to find the best teachers to put in those classrooms, and if he’s not doing that then the school board should hold the superintendent accountable for that.”
The attacks on Pastorek, meanwhile, have oftentimes been personal, but he’s keeping blinders on. “I talked to a lobbyist today,” he admits, “who tells me the chance of this being successful is remote. But I’m going to tell you, I believe that what is happening now in our state is an abomination. And it isn’t because the LEAP test is too hard. That’s another lie. It is because we have not paid attention to our duty. We need to rise up and pay attention to our duty to make our schools be world class, not just pretty good.
How Far Will Jindal’s Support Go?
By Jeremy Alford
Since a coalition of elected officials and special interests announced their plans to reform the state’s public school boards, Gov. Bobby Jindal has been noticeably quiet. By all accounts, though, Louisiana’s Rhodes Scholar governor has voiced general support for the legislative package. The real question is whether the backing will last.
Crafted jointly between the Council for A Better Louisiana, a good government group, and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, the largest lobby in the state, and filed by state Rep. Steve Carter, the package addresses a number of controversial issues.
The heavy political lifting is only beginning to start, and the Louisiana Association of School Boards is opposed to the proposal. As for Jindal’s administration, there still seems to be a lot of interest, if not a formal stance. “They have been generally supportive in our conversations and have asked how it’s going,” says CABL President Barry Erwin.
The whole situation gets a bit sketchy when recent history is rolled out. For example, Jindal has been known to flip-flop on legislative promises (legislative pay raises, reporting of contributions from appointments, Stelly tax reversal), but this time he’s at the table with two good friends: CABL, which was a cheerleader following the governor’s first special session on ethics last year, and LABI, which loudly supported Jindal’s second special session for economic development.
The package is also being authored by a fellow Republican. This week, along with CABL and LABI, Carter is expected to review the various pieces of legislation with members of the media. Depending on how it goes, Jindal may send word on how he feels about each piece. If not, his legislative leaders will certainly be taken to task when the regular session convenes April 27.
Local and state school officials question the need and motive for Superintendent Paul Pastorek’s reform proposals.
By Nathan Stubbs
In recent years, the Lafayette Parish School Board hasn’t felt an urgent need to hold formal meetings with local state representatives in advance of the spring legislative session in Baton Rouge. That changed this year in the wake of a slew of legislative proposals from Superintendent Paul Pastorek that seek sweeping reforms to the way local school districts are governed. (See The Plan, page 14)
Citing grave concern over the superintendent’s proposals, the Lafayette Parish School Board promptly revived its legislative breakfast earlier this month in order to deliver a clear and unified message that the Pastorek Plan isn’t the answer for any ailing school system. “On two of the proposals you’re taking power that the board currently has and giving it to the superintendent,” says Carl LaCombe, the school board’s president. “That’s one step removed from the people being represented. How responsive is the school system going to be to the public if those changes go into effect?”
Board member Mark Cockerham goes a step further, calling the proposals — and in particular the one to drastically cut board members’ compensation — a “slap in the face.” “This is a matter of respect,” Cockerham adds. “Nobody’s doing this for the money.” Most local school board members say Pastorek is cherry picking isolated incidents of micro-management from a few school districts (namely Lake Charles and Monroe) as justification for sweeping statewide reform. “You don’t punish the whole class because one kid’s being bad,” says board member Mike Hefner. The meeting was a testament to the strident opposition Pastorek’s proposals have stirred up, not just among school board members, but across the education community. Lafayette Parish Superintendent Burnell Lemoine also does not see the need for any of Pastorek’s proposals, even though he ostensibly stands to gain more authority from the changes.
“I guess the whole thing is how you perceive it,” says Lemoine. “For the things that are being proposed, I have not had a problem with any of those. In most instances, I don’t understand why [they are necessary].”
One of Pastorek’s proposals would prevent board members from having any say so in who a superintendent hires or fires — something that for Lemoine has been a non-issue. In the six years he has served as a superintendent (two in Lafayette Parish and four in Avoyelles Parish), Lemoine says he cannot recall one instance where the board rejected a recommendation he made to terminate someone, a move that would result in a tenure hearing. “I have not had that [happen],” he says. “Not that I recall.”
LaCombe agrees that if a superintendent is following proper procedure, there is no reason for the board to interfere. “We don’t micromanage,” he says. “We never have.”
Overall, Lemoine says he has a good working relationship with the Lafayette school board. “It’s really been a very collaborative effort which I have really appreciated,” he says. “I see the system, the way it operates, as a system of checks and balances. I make a recommendation and they approve, and if they don’t approve and they question something, then perhaps I need to give it second thought. Sometimes it gives you a different perspective.”
On the compensation issue, Lemoine says he also is very familiar with the time and effort school board members put into the job. His late mother was a member of the Avoyelles Parish School Board for several years and his brother is currently a member of that board. Almost daily, Lemoine says, board members take time to talk or meet with constituents, visit schools, or prepare for upcoming meetings. He says his brother, a mechanic, often loses money by serving on the board. “That $800 [a month] that he makes doesn’t come close to compensating for the work that he loses when he’s not at his shop [because of school board business].”
Other education leaders question the motive and ultimate goal behind Pastorek’s plans. Melinda Mangham, a Lafayette High English teacher and legislative chair for the Louisiana Association of Educators, points out that while the superintendent touts the plan as a way to improve student achievement scores, it is often difficult to grasp the impact these reforms would have in an actual classroom.
“LABI [the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry] and all of these people are for this. But why? What is it they’re for?” Mangham wonders. “A lot of the changes with the state department,” she continues, “they do without talking to the people that are in the field every day. Are there some things I think we can do better? Yes, but I think Pastorek’s just like a bulldozer. He’s going full speed ahead and everything gets mowed over without thinking about some of the consequences. We need to look at this carefully instead of just jumping off the edge of the cliff.”
Opponents of Pastorek’s agenda cite several possible unintended consequences:
• Tightening of nepotism laws could keep well-qualified educators out of key positions if they happen to be related to a superintendent — something that would be more of an issue in small, rural districts.
• Slashing school board members’ salaries could prevent low- to middle-income people from being able to afford taking the time to serve, leading to boards made up entirely of retired and well-heeled members of the community.
• Requiring a two-thirds majority to hire and fire a superintendent could result in bad superintendents overextending their tenure to the detriment of the school district.
• Preventing board members from having any say-so in personnel decisions erodes checks and balances and further exposes employees to being hired and fired on a whim by the superintendent.
The issue of term limits will have no effect on Lafayette Parish School Board members, who already have term limits (the board voted to put the issue on the ballot in 2006, and Lafayette Parish voters approved it).
One prevailing concern is that because of the influence Pastorek has over local superintendents (he conducts monthly meetings with all school district superintendents), his reforms may just be an attempt to consolidate power in his own central office. “It’s like a pyramid where he’s going to be at the top,” Mangham says. “With everything he’s doing, you take all of the running of your districts basically out of their home base.”
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers in Baton Rouge, says the bills don’t have much chance of passing this year, but he doesn’t see the issue going away any time soon. “I think it becomes a staging for the next regular session,” he says. “So we may have some dress rehearsals that are going to be very spirited debate in committees over this issue, and again it makes me very concerned that, why are we doing that?”
Monaghan finds Pastorek’s proposals to be a large distraction over some of the more pressing issues facing public education in the state.
“I don’t think the bills as proposed are going to get out [of committee],” he says. “It may very well serve the purpose of some who want to paint a picture that the real problem in education is local governance, and this will keep us kind of dancing around that issue rather than looking at the problems in public education as they’re related to the greater whole of the community.
1 Louisiana’s rank among the 50 states and District of Columbia for high school drop out rate (7.9% for Louisiana compared to a national average of 3.9%)
5 Louisiana’s rank for percentage of residents 25 or older without a high school diploma (19.5% versus 15.8% national)
7 Louisiana’s rank for the percentage of 8th graders reading at the “below basic” level (36% versus 27% national)
48 Louisiana’s rank for the percentage of 4th graders reading at or above the basic level (52% versus 66% national)
6 Louisiana’s rank for the percentage of 4th graders with “below basic” math skills (27% versus 19% national)
source: National Center for Education Statistics
$50 per meeting ($200 per month max) plus travel reimbursements.
It removes the profit motive for serving; a board member should care about education, not about padding his or her pockets.
People of modest means can barely afford to serve now. Slashing compensation would reduce board membership to the retired and the affluent.
Three terms and you’re out.
Serving on a school board should not be a career; make room for fresh blood and fresh ideas.
Term limits would also eliminate great school board members.
Superintendents have total control of personnel matters (hiring and firing) and they themselves can only be hired or fired by two-thirds majority vote of the school board.
Boards should focus on policy, not personnel. A super-majority would give superintendents a vote of confidence when hired and the support to pursue goals without fear of being fired.
This erodes checks and balances within the school system and consolidates too much power with the superintendent, who is not an elected official.
Since superintendents are in charge of personnel, their immediate family members cannot work in
their school district.
This merely tweaks and reinforces existing ethics laws and eliminates conflicts of interest for superintendents.
Preventing family members of superintendents from working in the school system as teachers could have a devastating impact on rural parishes where teachers are in short supply.