BATON ROUGE—BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Legislation aimed at curbing local school boards' power hasn't fared well so far this legislative session, testament, perhaps, to the boards' collective influence in Baton Rouge, if not to the strength of their argument that they are being unfairly scapegoated for Louisiana's education problems.
Bills that would impose term limits on school boards and cut members' pay appear dead.
Another measure, up for debate on the House floor this week, was nicked a bit before it was eventually advanced by the House Education Committee. As it stands, it would require a two-thirds vote of a school board to hire a superintendent or fire one whose contract hasn't yet expired. And it would beef up state law that already prohibits board members from working to "compel or coerce" personnel decisions.
Backers of the legislation have powerful arguments from former superintendents, and even a few school board members, who say individual board members' interference in day-to-day school system details is, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, a threat to progress. Opponents of the measures say board members are being singled out unfairly for Louisiana's education woes.
School board members have such a strong voice at the Capitol that it might be difficult to see them as victims. But they have another argument that undoubtedly will be used on the House floor: abundant anecdotal evidence of their micromanagement does not equal cold hard data proving board members' interference with superintendents is holding students back.
"I think that's a big argument with a lot of the legislators: show us a correlation where micromanagement of boards has adversely affected performance," said Lloyd Dressel of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
Still, individual stories of alleged abuse can be powerful. Rep. Steve Carter, the Baton Rouge Republican who is a chief sponsor of the legislation, got involved in the issue after hearing from a friend who told him she left a superintendent post after school board members complicated day-to-day hiring decisions concerning cafeteria workers and bus drivers. The ex-superintendent complained that board members pushed to have various people hired because their votes - and the votes of their family members - could help keep the board members in office, Carter said.
Term limits and compensation limits would help curb such influences, Carter said, arguing that most people who really want to serve on school boards are interested in helping students, not monetary gain.
But, his term limits bill was killed in committee. Carter is not pushing his compensation limit measure.
What's left is his bill aimed at limiting boards' ability to fire or interfere with superintendents. It's backed by state schools superintendent Paul Pastorek, Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana.
But they are handicapped by the lack of data tying micromanagement to school performance. And, Dressel points out, coercion by board members regarding personnel matters is already against the law.
That's not much of an argument to Barbara Turner, a former Jefferson Parish superintendent who says micromanagement was a reason she left her job. Superintendents who are victims of micromanagement are unlikely to seek prosecution of their bosses, she said. "School boards have the power of life or death over the superintendent's contract," she said.
The arguments aren't going to die, no matter what happens to Carter's bill during the current legislative session.
Russ Wise, a St. John the Baptist Parish school board member, believes more communication is needed. Wise acknowledges micromanagement is a problem but says the proposed law reining in board members isn't the way to go.
Board members, superintendents and others with a stake in the role boards and superintendents play need to come together to find a better solution, Wise told the House Education Committee. "Let's bring all of the players to the table after this session," he said.