Finalists named for superintendent of Baton Rouge schools as leaked emails and lackluster participation cause complaints

Search for EBR superintendent narrowed down to two candidates

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday, May 21, selected Leslie Brown and Nakia Towns as the finalists who will compete to become superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS).

View recordings of their first-round interviews and more on their backgrounds by clicking the link here.

Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) Senior Vice President for Economic Competitiveness Liz Smith issued the following statement:

“We’re enthusiastic about the two finalists chosen by the EBR School Board to interview for the role of our community’s next Superintendent. Ms. Leslie Brown and Dr. Nakia Towns are incredibly strong candidates, with extensive experience leading dramatic improvement in students’ academic achievement. The two candidates’ first round interviews revealed in both a drive for equitably serving students and families across East Baton Rouge, an innovative mindset, and a belief in Baton Rouge’s education potential. Both leaders also participated in a national program called Chiefs for Change, which has helped identify and develop the skills of education’s rising stars on a national level. In this unprecedented time, in which our community and its children are experiencing extreme uncertainty, choosing a bold and capable leader is absolutely paramount. The school board and this community should take pride in the remarkable talent that has been attracted to the Superintendent’s position. The two finalists are impressive women, and we look forward to learning more details about their COVID response and education transformation plans in the coming weeks.”

Candidates were required to receive five votes from school board members to move on to the final round.

Each board member could submit a vote for up to three candidates.

The semi-finalists included Leslie Brown, Adam Smith, Quentina Timoll, Nakia Towns, and Marshall Tuck.

School board president Michael Gaudet said the decision is important for everyone, not just parents of students who attend schools managed by the system.

Besides attracting and retaining residents, developing a strong workforce, and clear economic benefits that come from maintaining a productive school system, Gaudet says the new superintendent will have a key role in organizing public spending and future construction plans that could impact traffic, property values, and other factors that directly relate to the quality of life for residents around the parish.

Despite that message, a survey released ahead of Thursday’s vote received what some described as lackluster participation.

The survey asked community members to give feedback after watching recorded interviews of each candidate.

James Guerra, president and CEO of the third-party business responsible for securing candidates, JG Consulting, said under 150 people participated in the survey.

Guerra speculated that low participation is due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even with my low expectations I was disappointed," said one community member during a public commenting period.

The dissatisfaction extended beyond the survey, however.

Representatives from the NAACP, just hours before the meeting, selectively released 16 email conversations between East Baton Rouge Parish school board members and members of Baton Rouge’s business community.

The NAACP questioned whether the conversations suggest school board members have too cozy of a relationship with the business community.

In some of the emails provided by the NAACP, school board members appear to be having routine discussions with MAPP Construction president and CEO, Mike Polito.

In one email Polito appears to criticize board members about the job description put together by JG Consulting.

“Our group is very disappointed in the job description...We cannot recognize basically any of the qualities we all discussed and agreed were important,” the email provided by the NAACP says. “Please let me know when you have time to discuss. I urge you all to have [JG Consulting] go back to the drawing board.”

Another email released by the NAACP appears to show Polito offering to “go back at” former state senate candidate Gary Chambers on behalf of school board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson about comments made on social media.

That conversation progresses into Ware-Jackson appearing to admit an issue during the early-March vote to select semi-finalists.

“We made some errors in the last couple of hours before the meeting that affected the list of candidates moving forward to the interview phase. It may not affect the final choice but in all fairness two candidates should get a recount,” Ware-Jackson says in the NAACP-provided email. “One candidate’s name was wrong on the ballot. ‘Christ’ did not apply. My vote was affected...”

Ware-Jackson goes on to say in the NAACP-provided email that she alerted the school board’s attorney and other members of the school board about the issue.

“We need to do what we can to fix that and get past that or many people will not trust our process or final choice,” Ware-Jackson’s email says.

It’s unclear what action, if any, was taken by the school board. Attempts to schedule an interview with Ware-Jackson and other school board members after Thursday’s meeting are ongoing.

“That’s concerning. That’s really, really concerning. How did that affect the process? Was there a candidate that was excluded because of this? That’s something that needs to be answered,” said NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter president Eugene Collins.

Collins and the NAACP argued the superintendent selection should be paused until board members publicly acknowledge whether they’re allowed to have conversations about the search process with private individuals.

Collins and the NAACP also want answers about Ware-Jackson’s statements in the email they released.

“We just want some clarity and some questions answered for the community,” said Collins.

The contract for the current superintendent, Warren Drake, will end and he will retire from the position in June.

WHY THE SCHOOL BOARD CHOSE JG CONSULTING:

Gaudet says the school board chose to return to hiring outside executive search firms for this search because organizing a search the scale of which members of the board desired would exhaust a massive amount of resources the board could not provide.

“Doing these kinds of searches takes some expertise and some capabilities that we don’t have within the board. [The procedure] has typically been to go outside. The last time they did it, where Mr. Drake was hired, they did that internally and had a very good candidate, Mr. Drake was a very good choice, but this time we wanted to do a broader, national search," said Gaudet. "We’re in a bit of a different place and we just thought it would be better to bring in people who do this for a living and have the expertise to go out and capture a wider audience, but also to guide us through the process because I think one of the key things we’re trying to do is to have a very community-based process where people can get input into the process as we go forward. We’re trying to be very open and transparent and thought an outside group would help us achieve that.”

JG Consulting was one of two firms that presented bids to the school board. JG Consulting’s bid offered more services than the competitor, SSA Consultants, for a cheaper price.

Gaudet says JG consulting’s previous experience in education was also attractive to members of the school board.

“We had two groups that presented their qualifications and their thoughts about it and we chose this group I think mainly because of their experience within the educational arena. We’ve done a lot of checking and they’re widely respected within the education community and have very good contacts nationwide, so we just thought they would bring us a level of expertise," said Gaudet. "The other group is a very good group. We would have been fine going with either one. We just felt this group was a better fit for us based upon their background in the educational workplace.”

WHAT IMPACT WILL ST. GEORGE HAVE ON SCHOOL DISTRICTS?

East Baton Rouge school leaders have previously been relatively quiet on St. George, however, Gaudet took a moment to clarify why that has been the case. He says this early on in the incorporation process, which is likely to be further stalled by pending litigation, there isn’t enough clarity on the impacts St. George will have to start discussions or create plans.

“St. George is something that I have in the back of my mind, but it’s kind of an enigma right now because I don’t know what it is. People need to understand that there’s not only the issue of the incorporation of the City of St. George, but there’s nothing in law or anything that says the school district, if they would choose to form a school district, has to follow any of the outline of the City of St. George. The Zachary School District does not follow the Zachary city limits. A St. George school district does not have to follow the St. George city limits," said Gaudet. “When people say, ‘Gee, are you planning around St. George?’ I say, ‘I don’t know what to plan around.’ And so my view is that’s several years away. And yes, do I think about it? Yes. But are we taking concrete actions for that? Not particularly. We have children to educate, we have things to do, we have schools to improve, we have schools to build, and we need to keep on with doing that because to address something that is an unknown is very difficult to do.”

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