by Elliott Stonecipher

The Caddo Parish School Board is using costly professional headhunters to find our next superintendent, the same method used to find outgoing Superintendent Gerald Dawkins.

A better idea is for the Board to recruit a half-dozen or so Caddo residents who pay both sales and property taxes to support our Caddo schools, and have those taxpayers find and recommend to our Board the new gal or guy … who lives here … that’s the key.  

The Caddo Parish School Board needs a leader with skin in the game.

National searches have certainly not found superintendents with unique ability to turn the tide and provide quality educations for our children.  In 2001-02, during Superintendent Robert Schiller’s reign, the Caddo schools’ academic ranking was 34th among then-66 districts.  In latest 2010-11 scores, under a different grading system, Caddo is graded “D,” with 56% of Louisiana’s 1,334 schools graded higher.  Worse yet – and Lord forbid – the trend-line of such measurements for Caddo is down.  Multiple sources privately tell me our system’s academic measures are set to decline further, and soon. bragging-dogbert-the-headhunter

The national search method hides important facts about superintendents thus found and hired, with related damage to public confidence.  A good example is the hiring of our soon-to-be-ex-superintendent, Dr. Gerald Dawkins, recently released by an 8-4 vote of the school board.  Initially hired with what many felt was a too-high salary and benefit package, the public was not told that the cost was actually more than double because Dawkins quickly brought with him two top-ranking officials from his and their previous gig in Michigan.  School board members specifically acted to approve those hires, and some assert privately that certain members had winked-and-nodded the deal in advance.  By the time Dawkins, Inc. rented local apartments and set about showing us how it’s done in Michigan, the cost to Caddo taxpayers was north of $500,000 a year.

headhunterPerhaps more to the immediate point, Dr. Dawkins never moved to Caddo Parish.  He never registered to vote here.  He never paid property taxes here.  He maintained his Michigan residency, even as he made plans to retire, reportedly to North Carolina.  In the list of places Dawkins wanted to spend his time, Caddo Parish was last.  He had no skin in the game, and it always showed.

If our superintendent lives here, pays the same school taxes we pay, faces us in the grocery store or church or weekly civic group meeting – much less addresses us in a school board meeting – community confidence in the person and system will rise.   

Imagine how difficult it is for a Caddo superintendent to justify the truth of where we find ourselves.  Consider these comparisons between 1970, when we embarked on the thoroughly hopeful and long overdue racial desegregation of Caddo public schools, and now:

(1)  Caddo Parish’s total population through July 1, 2012 is 11.7% higher than in the 1970 Census;

(2)  the number of school-aged children (5-17) in that population, however, had dropped -29.1% in that period;

(3)  while that decline in school-aged children was happening, 6 more schools were built; and,

(4)  along with an increase to 1.5% in the sales tax dedicated to schools, the property tax millage dedicated to schools increased 184.4% (27.50 mills to 78.20 mills).

These data from the Caddo Parish School Board, Louisiana Department of Education, and Caddo Parish Tax Assessor’s office clearly detail our circumstance.  Since we began educating all our children, Caddo’s total population is up 12%, but with nearly 30% fewer who are school-aged.  Somehow, even with 18,000 fewer kids now than then, we added 6 schools.  As enrollment collapsed, our school sales tax rose, and our property tax almost tripled.

headhunter-jailIn the more recent period 2003 to 2012, enrollment has dropped 8.7%, but the number of teachers only 1.8%.  As to physical plant, shut-’em-down school closings are as rare as a five-inch snow on Christmas day.  The money flow, though, gushes on:  our Caddo property tax for public schools is second-highest among Louisiana’s 71 districts.

As to local financial commitment, a key and fair system-to-system comparison is Caddo to East Baton Rouge.  An urban system like ours, EBR enrollment in 2010-11 was 42,723, and Caddo’s was 41,894.  Their local sales tax is 33% higher – 2.0% there to 1.5% here – but our property tax millage is 80% higher – 78.20-mills here and 43.45-mills there.  Thus, Caddo taxes in support of our schools target and hammer owners of homes and business property.  Given the system’s inability to even find a bottom in declining academic performance, property owners may be forgiven feeling that “school taxes” are more a penalty for living and working in Caddo than a statement of extraordinary financial support for educating our children.      

Notably, the EBR system has just announced it will cut spending by $54,000,000 in the next three years.  Here, on the other hand, Caddoans are asked to vote on May 4th to renew $55,500,000 in yearly spending generated by a 35.23-mill portion of our total property tax.  Our next superintendent will lead a notoriously bloated and top-heavy system, facing an EBR-like appointment with reality.  No outsider should be expected – or trusted – to make such cuts.

A superintendent from here will be known by many of us, lowering the odds of backroom political dealing which is Central Office dictum.  By the time our past two out-of-state superintendents were hired, they were politically attached to only certain board members and top staff who, in turn, defended and kept “their guy” at the controls no matter what, for personal and political gain.  Which cabal controls the superintendency has been the crummy norm. As our system blows through $500,000,000 a year, it attracts a lot of “interest,” much of which forgets or ignores the actual education of our children.

Each of us likely knows more than one good and dedicated school board members, but we also know the Board as a group respects taxpayer money, not taxpayers. Notably, they have already scheduled a back-up election later this year in case they fail in May. That proves, of course, that the Board knows only what it once and forever knew: tax and spend … more … then more … and more.

But, as one member pointed out to me, they only spend what we give them.

Elliott Stonecipher

Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest.  No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work.  This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.