- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s first public boarding school for troubled students statewide is nearing completion in Baton Rouge.

And it is all happening because Gov. John Bel Edwards overrode the pleas of some of his key supporters and signed a bill to launch the school.

The measure, House Bill 887, will pave the way for a highly praised charter school - Thrive Charter Academy - to be converted into an independent school eventually for students in grades six through 12.

Backers say the school will offer a lifeline to students who are homeless, children of parents with addictions and those with a history of truancy and other problems.

“We provide a lifesaving service in many places,” said Sarah Broome, founder of the school and a political novice who pushed the bill through the Legislature.

The bill flew below the radar during the 2016 regular session. HB887 won final House approval 88-5 and passed the Senate 32-0, lopsided margins for any legislation.

But what sparked attention at the State Capitol was the fact Edwards signed the measure despite heavy criticism of the measure from some of his key allies.

Officials of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators - both teachers unions and stalwart backers of the governor - asked Edwards to veto the bill.

The Louisiana School Boards Association, which usually is aligned with the governor on key education issues, opposed it throughout the legislative process.

Instead, Edwards sided with supporters of the bill, including Lane Grigsby, the founder of Cajun Industries, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

One of the criticisms is that authorizing a new, independent state school makes no sense in the midst of a historic state budget crisis.

Public schools are bracing for their first cut in state aid in decades.

“It is a fiscal issue,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

“When you are $24 million short to maintain the same level of funding for K-12, it is a stretch to ask that a new state school be created,” Richard said.

Asked if the governor wanted to comment, press secretary Shauna Sanford noted the bill won heavy support in the Legislature, including from the Baton Rouge-area legislative delegation.

“Gov. Edwards took a number of viewpoints into consideration, but ultimately, the opportunity to support at-risk youth outweighed anything else,” Sanford said in an email.

The campus, including a new dormitory for about 180 students, is coming to life at 2585 Brightside Drive in south Baton Rouge. What will be classroom space used to be a Catholic center for deaf students.

The complex is just down the street from the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, which, like Thrive, are among a handful of special state school districts.

Thrive Charter Academy, which starts its fifth year in mid-August, used to lease space at the Family Youth Services Center on Government Street.

It was a part-time boarding school, with students staying from Sunday night until Friday afternoon.

Thrive will remain a charter school for the 2016-17 school year, with about 140 students at its new location.

The independent Thrive Academy - then no longer a charter school - will be launched for the 2017-18 school year, with full-time residents once enrollment thresholds reach certain levels.

The long-range goal is 350 students.

The new state law is aimed at aiding what the state calls “at-risk” students - shorthand for those from troubled backgrounds.

The list includes children who are eligible for health benefits under Medicaid; those in foster care through the state; and students referred to the school by teachers or counselors.

“Traditionally speaking, most of our kids are seriously underperforming,” said Broome, who also is executive director of the school.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the bill, was blunter.

Without schools like Thrive, he said, students on the edge are headed for prison.

Even critics of the legislation concede that Thrive has had a positive impact.

After just two years the school was among the highest-performing public middle schools in Baton Rouge.

It got a C rating from the state in 2015, respectable in light of the school’s mission and age.

Opponents of the bill said the venture needed more vetting.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the law includes a “laundry list” of reasons for children to qualify for Thrive.

“We really think this bill is setting a pretty dangerous precedent,” Meaux said. “It is going to allow schools, whether they are charter or part of school districts, to apply for independent school status.”

Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the board that will oversee the school is top heavy with political appointees.

That nine-member panel includes one named by state Superintendent of Education John White; East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake; the chairman and chairwoman of the Senate and House education committees; a panelist named by the governor; and East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III.

Students will be financed through the Minimum Foundation Program, like those in both traditional and charter schools.

Spending per pupil ultimately will total more than $23,000 including academics and housing, Louisiana Association of Educators officials said.

Broome said $2 million was raised in private donations and $1.5 million was collected from the state for capital outlay, and possibly more.

Another $6.7 million is bank debt was incurred by the Thrive Foundation.

One reason the bill breezed through the Legislature is that it sparked little attention, including from opponents who would have mobilized.

“I have nothing but effusive praise for both the governor and the Legislature,” Broome said. “They really stood up for us.”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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