Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Lafayette civic group makes a strong case for holding off on new taxes for our public schools. Will the board listen?

The name may be polarizing, but 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette’s recent request of the Lafayette Parish School Board is something we can rally around.

Last week, 100 BMGL urged the board to defer asking Lafayette Parish voters to approve a new property tax until a long-term superintendent is in place and both an education plan and transparency are adopted by the board.

I’m sticking to my observation of two weeks ago: With renewal of a 5-mills property tax that generates about $8 million annually on the ballot this Saturday, April 30, now is not the time to be talking about a new tax. The school system’s Citizens’ Oversight Committee is urging a fall 2011 proposition. The board will decide May 4.

BMGL’s request for a delay is more nuanced than my public-relations caveat. (Let’s make it official nonetheless: The Ind endorses the renewal of the property tax.) The group wants stability at superintendent. Current Super Burnell Lemoine is on a short-term contract and has said he wants to retire at the end of this school year, but there are rumblings that he may be offered another relatively short extension. If the board does vote to set a fall property tax election in which it will ask voters to pony up $600 million dollars — the first installment on the $1.1 billion Facilities Master Plan — taxpayers should first be assured our school system has long-term leadership in place to implement the plan. And voters need to know the LPSB will openly engage the public in an aggressive plan to close the achievement gap between poor/minority students and their more affluent counterparts.

BMGL believes a 95 percent graduation rate for all students, regardless of demographic, is attainable. That’s a lofty goal, maybe even an unrealistic one. But it’s tethered to a sobering premise: Our school system does a great job of educating our best students, but does a poor job of educating our at-risk students.

Consider the LPSS’ schools of choice/academy program. By all accounts it’s a wonderful means of engaging students. The overall concept — a school within a school featuring specialized curricula — is innovative and praise-worthy.

But it’s also to a certain extent a shell game we play with at-risk students, and one that has strained the school system’s beleaguered budget: If a student in Youngsville gets into, say, the Information Technology Academy at Carencro High, the school system has an obligation to bus that student from one end of the parish to the other. Originally meant to placate Uncle Sam in the parish’s long-running desegregation case, which it did successfully, it also masks the under-achievement of our at-risk student population, mainly black students who live in poverty, and especially black males, by more evenly distributing student performance.

There’s a reason why Paul Breaux Middle is the top-performing middle school in Lafayette Parish, and it’s not because it’s located in a poor/working-class, majority-black neighborhood. It’s because high-performing Gifted and French Immersion students, a sheltered population that has little interaction with the general student body, are bussed there.

Now look at N.P. Moss Middle, also an academy school but one that has attracted few out-of-zone students due largely to negative publicity over the last few years. At last count there were 40 out-of-zone students attending Moss, which serves a mostly black, low-income school zone, hence it’s a truer representation of how we as a parish educate at-risk students.

Moss was on the brink of takeover by the state after repeatedly being listed a “failing” school. The board remedied this by converting Moss into Thibodaux Career & Technical High School. When the final bell rings this school year, N.P. Moss will cease to exist.

BMGL has collected reams of data from the state Department of Education bearing out how wide the achievement gap is between races and income strata. It’s a chasm.

We have to do better with this population of students, and there is research not to mention the remarkable and demonstrable progress the Recovery School District in New Orleans has made over the last few years — progress some on the school board not only refuse to acknowledge but outright mischaracterize — proving it can be done.

High dropout rates correlate to high incarceration rates. Good public schools are attractive to business. Jails are expensive to operate. This is a long-term economic development issue.

The board needs to select a competent, committed superintendent who will lead our school system, not for the next year or two, but for the next decade, and to develop a plan to address the achievement gap and lower the dropout rate.

Then we can talk about new taxes.

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