New district bills sent to House floor
After more than three hours of often-pointed testimony, a Louisiana House committee Wednesday approved a plan that would pave the way for a new public school district in southeast Baton Rouge.
The two-bill package won approval in the House Education Committee 12-6, with Republicans behind the plan and Democrats opposed.
When the issue will be debated on the House floor is unclear.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and sponsor of the legislation, declined to predict whether the proposed constitutional amendment — one of two bills needed — has enough support to get the required two thirds backing in the House, or 70 votes.
“One step at a time,” White said moments after the vote.
While Republicans control the state House, backers will need the support of some Democrats to reach the two-thirds target.
The House has 58 Republicans, 45 Democrats and 2 independents.
The plan would carve out a new school district from an area that includes 10 schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which White said has failed parents and students for years.
White said the new school system would be the fourth of its kind to bolt the East Baton Parish school system after Baker, Zachary and Central did the same.
“If you don’t live here, doesn’t that tell you something,” White said, noting earlier that the district carries a “D” grade from the state.
Top officials of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, including administrators and board members, took turns denouncing the plan as one that would devastate schools financially and academically.
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish system, said backers have said the new district would be about 75 percent white.
“Let’s get to the elephant in the room,” Rutledge told the committee.
The proposal that spells out details of the new district is Senate Bill 563 and requires majority support.
It may require review by the House Appropriations Committee to review the financial impact before any debate on the House floor.
The proposed constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support, is Senate Bill 299.
If the bills win legislative approval, the amendment would require majority support from voters statewide on Nov. 6 as well as in East Baton Rouge Parish to take effect.
The two-bill package easily cleared the Senate on April 25.
The proposed district would extend southeast from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has about 43,000 students.
White said about 6,800 students attend the 10 schools covered in the new plan, and that black students make up about 55 percent of the enrollment.
Carolyn Pittman, a retiree who lives in Baton Rouge, urged the committee to back the bills since she said previous pledges by school officials to make improvements have failed.
“They have had their chance,” Pittman said. “I have lived through a system being broken down.”
Chas Roemer, a member of Louisiana’s top school board who represents the area, also backed the bills.
Roemer said opponents repeatedly cry “what if” to a wide range of issues if the breakaway district becomes reality.
“I would ask a much more direct question,” he said. “What if we don’t do this?”
Roemer said inaction will continue the exodus of East Baton Rouge students to the Zachary, Central, Ascension and Livingston school systems.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office also backs the plan.
But Carlos Sam, interim East Baton Rouge Parish superintendent, painted the district in different terms than the low-peforming mess described by backers of the bill.
Sam said the district’s state performance score is rising faster than many, that nine of its schools have earned Blue Ribbon status and that numerous principals have gotten national recognition.
Belinda Davis, the mother of two children who attend East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, disputed arguments that a smaller school district will translate into academic and other gains.
Davis said the state has 44 small school districts and that 22 of them are rated “D” or “F” by the state.
“Smaller districts are not a magic bullet,” she said.
White said the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is 81 percent minority and that, based on district figures, that would rise to 86 percent if the new district becomes reality.
Critics said such a district could prompt legal action and that it would also include an inordinate number of students from poor families.
Schools included in the proposed district are Cedarcrest-Southmoor, Jefferson Terrace, Parkview, Shenandoah, Wedgewood, Westminster and Woodlawn elementary schools; Woodlawn and Southeast middle schools and Woodlawn High School.
Voting FOR establishing a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge (12): State Reps. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Henry Burns, R-Haughton; Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette; Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans; Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette; Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux; John Schroder, R-Covington; Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston; Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City and Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.
Voting AGAINST HB563 and HB299 (6): State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; John Bel Edwards, D-Amite; Patrick Jefferson, D-Arcadia; Ed Price, D-Gonzales; Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge.