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Hemelt: $115K contract to support 3 principals comes under spotlight

St. John the Baptist Parish School Board members are considering a $115,000 investment in principal coaching at three schools that is slated to run for just seven months.

It’s a hefty price to pay, indeed — one that calls for a $38,500 payment April 20, $38,500 payment June 20 and $38,499 payment Sept. 20 to The New Teacher Project for the benefit of East St. John High School, LaPlace Elementary School and Fifth Ward Elementary.

The contract comes with some public controversy as School Board member Gerald Keller questioned Superintendent Kevin George’s decision to recommend The New Teacher Project, suggesting the contract had special interest financial benefits that went beyond School District results. During this week’s executive committee meeting, Keller and George took thinly veiled verbal jabs at each other that caused anxiety among numerous School Board members and School District representatives.

Things were complicated again Thursday at the full School Board meeting when members and legal advisers questioned the legitimacy of votes to table or pass the contract. The agreement will likely not be finalized until April, if at all.

George insists the money — which is coming from federal dollars and has to be allocated before the end of this fiscal year or the School District loses it — is going to a serious area of need. ESJH, LaPlace Elementary and Fifth Ward are all run by first year principals. ESJH and LaPlace Elementary are the school district’s largest schools, George says, combining for approximately 65 percent of St. John Public Schools’ district performance score.

Fifth Ward is the district’s lowest performing school on annual assessments.

According to George, the district was impacted negatively when the assistant superintendent took ill and left day-to-day duties in September.

Principal support had been a chief duty of the assistant superintendent, responsibilities that George took on. George says his dynamic as the ultimate boss is less than ideal to be the chief peer-to-peer coach for District principals.

“I believed they were not getting the requisite support they were needing,” George said. “I began to research some different things on companies that do this thing well. The New Teacher Project rose to the top because they are a company with a proven record in the state of Louisiana. They help to coach principals to lead their schools into excellence.”

Despite The New Teacher Project’s success, George said the limited three-school rollout offers the outfit a prove-it opportunity before discussion on a larger contract and District-wide roll out is considered.

“We wanted to say ‘come in and work your magic in St. John’ before we say, ‘hey, let’s go all over the district,’” George said.

“They can come in, learn how we do things and help some schools. If they get good results, we can look to extend them past the September contract end date and maybe even expand into other schools.”

George said the magic for any school site takes place during planning stages in the summer. High performing and improving schools have personnel that bust their butts through June and July. George wants the partnership to generate a clear, logical plan that guides East St. John High, LaPlace Elementary and Fifth Ward through their improvement process.

As the ultimate decision makers, School Board members need to be just as into the process, evaluating this contract’s effectiveness and benefit to our principals, who then use that help to drive student success.

Our students are certainly worthy of a $115,000 investment.

We just need our School Board members to assure us this expenditure is benefiting our students.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.