Pastorek explains actions to locals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 22, 2009


LAPLACE—State School Superintendent Paul Pastorek paid a visit to St. John Parish Monday to meet with local school boards and explain his reasoning behind proposed legislation that would restrict some of the powers currently held by board members.

Among the disputed proposals—which drew the ire of school boards across the state last month—are measures that would greatly restrict a board’s power regarding the hiring and firing of superintendents, set term limits on board members and eliminate salaries for board members.

Outspoken board member Russ Wise has spearheaded the effort in St. John to refute the proposed legislation and played a major role in bringing about this meeting, which was held at St. John’s newest learning facility, Emily C. Watkins. Accordingly, he introduced Pastorek to an audience of educators from both St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes, saying, “No background has to be provided here. I think everyone knows why we’re here.”

Pastorek for his part seemed sympathetic to the concerns of the board members but firm in his conviction that changes within Louisiana’s school boards must occur.

“I suppose I do what I do every day because I want our children to be wildly successful,” he said.

He went on to detail his background in Louisiana’s school system.

During former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, he was appointed to serve out the 10 months remaining in former Superintendent Cecil Picard’s term, and when Gov. Bobby Jindal took office, he asked Pastorek to stay on. According to Pastorek, he was coaxed into remaining in the position with the promise, “We’re going to do some wonderful things.”

And, it seems, the reluctant administrator has taken on his role with ample gusto.

He admitted to concentrating on the Recovery School District, calling it the state’s “path to success.”

He also touted the state’s success over the past 12 years in bringing the scores of underprivileged students’ test scores more in line with the state average.

“We are closing the gaps faster than any other state in the country,” he said.

He added, “If you can’t do eighth-grade math, you are pretty much condemned to a marginalized life.”

He went on to explain the logic behind the introduction of the state’s much-maligned standardized tests—the LEAP, iLEAP and GEE.

In 1996 the state suffered from a non-fully-funded MFP, so in 1997, state officials devised a plan to measure academic achievement with the aforementioned tests.

About the tests, he said, “The bar was, frankly, set low.”

A deal was then cut that stated the state would receive a fully-funded MFP in return for bringing all of Louisiana’s 1,300 public schools’ performance scores up to 100 within 10 years. By 2007, however, only 300 schools had reached the watermark.

“We did not live up to our end of the bargain,” he said, “but we still get MFP.”

Not only does the state get MFP, but the amounts awarded in the past two years were the highest given to public education according to Pastorek.

He then posed the question, “How do we square away these two factors?”

His solution entails, in part, his proposed reforms.

Another part of the problem, he said, is local boards seeming indifference to the matter of graduation rate, a number obtained by comparing the number of freshmen entering a school in any given year to the number of those students graduating four years later.

According to Pastorek, if schools could fix the graduation rate problem, many of the other problems would be solved along with it.

“If I were a policy maker, I would be focusing on [graduation rate] every meeting and every chance I had,” he stated.

He went on to cite a number of statistics and examples that suggested many problems arise not from a lack of funding but from the districts themselves.

Once again, he suggested the contentious legislation might begin to solve some of these internal problems.

The defense of his plan then began in earnest, but not before prefacing it with the remark, “I don’t believe that people serve on school boards to do anything negative.”

Regarding restricting hiring and firing procedures, Pastorek claimed it was counterintuitive to have an organization run by committee, saying one person must be held accountable for running an organization.

The proposed term limits are part of an effort to combat complacency. After reiterating his view of the intentions of school board members, he said what might be best for many boards is giving someone else a shot at it.

The elimination of salaries has a similar motive, and he thinks will help ensure a purity of motive on the part of local boards.

No matter the topic, Pastorek made one thing abundantly clear—excuses would not cut the mustard with this superintendent.

He finished his talk by discussing the current state of the legislation, which should go to the legislature sometime this year.

He also stressed his intention to keep the lines of communication between his office and local districts open.

After his speech, board members were given only about 20 minutes for rebuttal, a fact that clearly agitated some of those in attendance.

St. John School Board Member Matthew Ory in particular voiced his dismay at the brevity of time allotted to the locals. He also stressed his belief that many of these measures could never pass in a federal court.

Ory also questioned the length of time many people at the state level have spent in their positions. “Where are the fresh ideas there?” he said.

Wise refuted Pastorek’s position on board salaries with the words, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” He said eliminating the salaries would be tantamount to insult.

The morning ended with some suggestions from Pastorek with regard to actions the boards could take to see fresh ideas in action, such as visiting charter schools.

He also thanked the boards for giving him the opportunity to come to the community and talk to them.

While it is doubtful many minds were changed, at least each side got a chance to glimpse the motivation of the other.