Avoyelles superintendent addresses issues facing public school system

 

   There are many issues that affect the operation and the success of a public school system. Some of those issues occur in the halls and classrooms of the 10 Avoyelles Parish School District schools. Some issues that affect the schools do not directly relate to the schools. In an effort to put the “public” in public education, Avoyelles Superintendent of Schools Blaine Dauzat agreed to address several of those important factors in this article. 
 
1. When you were hired, the School Board noted that discipline was a problem in  schools. Do you believe it is better today and, if so, what have you done to make it better? 
     “This absolutely was an area that most of the board stressed when hiring me 20 months ago. I definitely believe things are better -- at most of our schools. We are rewarding positive behavior more than ever and we are more consistently punishing negative behavior. Rewards are up. Suspensions and expulsions, unfortunately, are also up. This is something we felt like had to get worse before it got better. We've got to create a culture that makes our students feel safer and more secure. I think we've done that at many of our schools. To be honest, we're not there at a few of them. We will continue to work hard to get there at every school.”
 
2. In a recent email to school employees, you predicted there will be a rise in school performance scores. Is that optimistic dreaming or do you have “sneak peek” information on which to base those predictions?
   “The state gives us a “calculator” which allows us to input all of our test results. We have been using this for a few years, and we have almost perfected the science of it. We may be a few points off, but for the most part, we can project that our district will be up to a C, and at least 8 of our 10 schools will have numerical scores higher than last year.   “That’s big. Eight of 10 schools showing growth proves that we are on the right track.”
 
3. There have been comments that the proposed sales tax on the Dec. 10 ballot will give larger raises to supervisory staff than to teachers and school employees. Others have said all teachers -- including principals and administrators -- would receive the same across-the-board raise for teachers and all non-teaching employees would receive the same across-the-board raise for non-teaching employees. Please explain how the sales tax revenues would be apportioned among the employees.
   “Administrators’ salaries are based on the teachers’ salary schedule. Administrators receive a “factor.”  For example, a principal makes 1.56 times what a teacher makes, due to working 60 more days and having more responsibilities. Supervisor salaries are a little higher.  If we give teachers a $5,500 raise and don’t give administrators their factors, we are, in essence, lowering their factors. That is illegal.  Their factors have been approved by previous boards and cannot be lowered. I’m not sure why this is getting so much attention. Administrators at the Central Office will get less than 3 percent of the revenues generated if this tax passes. Ninety-seven percent will go to school personnel. The teachers and support personnel will still get the overwhelming majority of the revenues raised.   Every teacher will receive $5,500 and all support personnel will receive $2,500.”
 
4. Some tax opponents contend that raises can be provided without imposing a sales tax. Are there other available sources to fund raises to make the parish competitive?
   “Some of the alternatives proposed don’t make any sense. I’ve been told that we could use the $2 million in reserve funds. That’s about half of what it will take to generate this raise and, more importantly, that represents one-time funds. What would we do next year and in years to come? It’s been said that we should use the extra revenue from camp leases. We make about $150,000 a year from those leases. That’s about 4 percent of the total needed to give these raises. I’ve even heard that we should make cuts in the Central Office.  Compare us to other districts our size and we’re already a small staff. I’ll add that even if we cut the Central Office staff in half, it wouldn’t even generate a fourth of the revenue that this tax would generate. Quite simply, to give a raise that would make us competitive with the rest of the state, we must pass a tax.”
 
5. Why is the sales tax necessary and what would be the consequences if the tax fails?
   “This is simple. Do we want to be able to attract and retain quality teachers? People like to complain about our system, but the backbone of any school system is its teachers. We need to at least be competitive.  Our beginning teachers are LAST in the entire state in salaries.  LAST!!!! Is that where we want to be? The consequences are obvious --  we will continue to risk losing good teachers to surrounding parishes and we will have to hire more uncertified teachers and substitutes.”
 
6. Recently, Board Member Shelia Blackman-Dupas expressed her personal opinion concerning what she sees as some failings of the school district. To use a casino term, she “doubled down” on a local radio show. Among her comments was a criticism of your use of the term “warm bodies” to refer to students. How would you respond to her comments overall and her criticism of you in particular?
   “Warm body count” is a term very commonly used in school districts across the nation. The term refers to kids who have actually shown up, as opposed to those who are just registered in our system. It would be fraud to report numbers registered to receive MFP funds, rather than report “warm bodies.”  No disrespect is meant by the term. We did an informal poll of surrounding districts and within two hours, 10 districts replied to us that they use the term also. One district in Arkansas -- Bentonville, a district of 12,000 students -- even used the term in a press release!  I have it if anyone wants to see it. That’s how common the term is. To criticize us over this is really a stretch.  Our teachers love all of their students. It’s amazing to see how much some of them care for the kids.”
 
7. Do you agree with her assessment that 9 of the 10 APSD schools, and the district overall, have failed the public school students?
   “I am in total disagreement with Mrs. Blackman on this issue. There are examples of students from all 10 of our schools who have gone on to great successes. If our district has failed all of its students, how do you explain the students at many of our Louisiana universities that are achieving at high levels? What about the doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, business owners and other professionals that our system helped to develop? Do we have our problems? Absolutely. But to say that 9 of 10 schools have failed is very insulting to the teachers and administrators that work so hard to help their students. What data is she using to back up her statement?”
 
8. Since the purpose of this “Q & A” is to give the public a better insight into the issues affecting the public schools, please share your philosophy on public/community/parental involvement in the schools? Be honest. Do you really want parents to be “actively” involved in the schools, or just to send brownies to the PTA meeting?
   “I spoke at the ‘Unity Rally’ at the beginning of this school year, sponsored by the Police Jury.  I said it then, and I say it again now. What happened to the days when teachers, administrators and parents worked together? It is clear that we still have many parents who support the work we are doing. However, it’s very often that some parents think it’s us vs. them. It’s not!!!! We succeed when our students succeed!  Why in the world would we NOT want our students to be successful? We want parents to be involved. Students succeed at a higher rate when parents and schools work together.”
 
9. Not so long ago, the hot issue at the School Board meetings was hunting permits and camp site leases on 16th Section tracts. What is the status of the leasing/permit issue? Has the board considered leasing all available tracts to one entity, as was once suggested, so it can get out of the “rental business” altogether? Why would that be a good, or bad, decision?
   “The board has considered the option of leasing to one entity. I believe, however, that they have tried to work to ensure that the common man is not robbed of the opportunity to hunt on and lease these lands. I will simply say that I defer to the board on this issue. They have been very good about deferring educational issues to me. I think it’s only fair that I do the same for them on Section 16 issues. I’m no expert in this field and some of our board members are very knowledgeable in this area.”
 
10. On another 16th Section issue, please give us an update on the Bayou Joson “land swap” proposal. Explain to the readers why the board needs the Legislature’s approval to enter into such a transaction. Have you spoken to Rep. Robert Johnson or the parish’s two state senators, Eric LaFleur and Neil Riser, about the matter?
   “The swap is in a holding pattern as of now. I have spoken to Rep. Johnson. He has told me that he is withholding judgment on this issue until he has heard from all stakeholders. I believe the board is ready to move forward with the swap -- if the appraisal shows it to be a fair trade. I have not spoken to either of our senators. Again, I have mostly deferred this issue to the board. I can tell you that the law says we must have legislative approval before any sale or swap of Section 16 lands takes place. 
   "All I would add is that we are doing everything we can to improve our public school system. We are not perfect. We acknowledge that we have issues. We do believe, however, that we are making progress. “We will continue to work harder -- and smarter -- to ensure that our students have every opportunity to succeed.”          
 
 

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