Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pastorek fires shot over school boards' bow

If the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's meeting room was filled to capacity with angry citizens about this, just wait until hearings begin on Superintendent Paul Pastorek's plan to gut the authority of local school boards.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here, a scheme is afoot that would cede most school board members' power to local superintendents, take away the salaries for board members, put limits on their terms of office and establish educational requirements for elected board members.

Each of these issues could be debated on its merits. But taken as a whole, this push will be seen as nothing less than a declaration of war on local school boards by the state superintendent.

As the story develops, it will be interesting to see who takes sides in the fight. The only BESE member interviewed in Sentell's article is Tammie McDaniel of Oak Ridge, who supports Pastorek's initiative. She is one of three members who are appointed by Governor Bobby Jindal, and not elected from a district. That would tend to indicate that the plan has the governor's approval. And As Sentell reports, a powerful business lobby and public interest group have lined up in favor of changing the rules for school boards.

What about the elected BESE members? Some of them have strong ties to local school boards, and there is little to indicate that they will fall in line behind their superintendent. Thus far, Pastorek has been able to get a majority to support his agenda. Can he keep that edge, or will members see this move as an overreach?

Don't think that the state's 70 school boards will give up their power without a fight. In many parishes, the school board is the largest employer, with the biggest budget. Board members are closer to their constituencies than BESE members, and may be able to generate a grass-roots opposition that will bring considerable clout to the fight.

The statewide organization representing board members, the Louisiana School Boards Association, has been little heard from in recent legislative sessions. This is the kind of issue that could reawaken LSBA and make a player once again in capitol politics.

Then there is the legislature, which will have to vote on Pastorek's proposals. A good number of them are former school board members and are loyal to their political roots. Relations between lawmakers and BESE have often been strained in the past, and this is an issue that could easy inflame old wounds even as it opens new ones.

Factor in the fact that some legislators are laying in the gap for Governor Jindal because of his bungled handling of last year's pay raise, and the stage is set for a class-A donnybrook. Sad thing is, the fight will have much less to do with good education policy than with score settling and power grabbing among the political class.

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