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.”
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.
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