New school district clears first hurdle

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, spoke Thursday in favor of breaking away southeast Baton Rouge neighborhoods into a separate school district.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, spoke Thursday in favor of breaking away southeast Baton Rouge neighborhoods into a separate school district.

Resuming a 2012 battle, a plan to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge cleared its first hurdle Thursday.

The two-bill package passed the state Senate Education Committee without objection after nearly three hours of arguments.

It next faces action in the Senate Finance Committee because of cost issues and, if approved there, moves to the full Senate.

Last year the state Senate approved a nearly identical package, which later died in the Louisiana House.

Backers said families are demanding a new district because they view the East Baton Rouge Parish school system as a troubled operation riddled with “D” and “F” schools.

Joshua Hoffpauir, who lives next to Westminster Elementary School, said he does not see that school as a viable option now, but can only pay for private schools for his children for a few years.

“My wife and I have lost faith in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” Hoffpauir said.

Opponents said the legislation would create an affluent school district and spark major financial and other problems for students in the district left behind.

“We all know we have to do better and we are doing better,” said Bernard Taylor, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

The key issue this time is whether one of the bills, a proposed constitutional amendment, can gain the two-thirds majorities in both chambers — 26 votes in the Senate and 70 in the House.

That hurdle killed the ballot measure last year when it fell four votes short in the state House after passing in the Senate.

If approved by lawmakers, the proposal would also require approval from a majority of voters statewide, and those in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, to take effect.

“It is a daunting task,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton rouge and sponsor of the plan.

The constitutional amendment is Senate Bill 73. The change in state law, which requires a simple majority, is Senate Bill 199.

The plan would move 10 public schools in the parish school system to the newly created Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District.

It would generally extend from the Interstate 10-12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

The new district would include Parkview Oaks, Jefferson Terrace, Westminster, Cedarcrest, Wedgewood, Shenandoah and Woodlawn elementary schools; Southeast and Woodlawn middle schools and Woodlawn High School.

The new system would be the fifth public school district in the parish including the Central, Zachary and Baker systems.

Dwight Hudson, who said he loves Baton Rouge, added that, as a real estate agent, he does not show homes in the Baton Rouge school district because of the lack of viable public school options. Without changes like the new district “we will have to move back to Central or Prairieville,” Hudson said of his family.

Norman Browning, president of the group Local Schools for Local Children, said the East Baton Rouge school system is rated 55th out of 71 statewide. “Sixty percent of our children attend ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools,” Browning told the committee.

The East Baton Rouge district has about 43,000 students.

It is rated “C” by the state, up from a “D” last year.

Janet Molder, who moved here in 2001 from Iowa, said that, despite warnings that Louisiana did not place a priority on its public schools, her children did fine in the school system here and now attend LSU.

Belinda Davis, president of the opposition group One Community One School District, said the legislation vastly underestimates the costs to about 4,000 East Baton Rouge Parish School District retirees, including some who taught her.

Davis said the parish school district would then be forced to try to boost taxes or cut aid to classrooms.

Officials of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber said in a news release that they oppose the plan because there are unanswered questions about costs, buildings and demographics.