1 breakaway district bill passes
by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
May 31, 2012
One of the bills needed to carve out a new public school district in southeast Baton Rouge passed the Louisiana House on Thursday but fell well below the vote margin needed to pass a crucial companion measure.
The proposal, Senate Bill 563, won House approval 59-37.
That bill spells out details of the proposed district, and would become part of state law.
However, backers also need the state House to pass a second measure, a proposed constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds majority, or 70 votes.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and chief sponsor of the plan, watched the debate from the House floor and said afterward that backers needed to delay a vote on the ballot measure, now set for Wednesday.
Asked if supporters can round up the needed votes White said, “Well, it ain’t over until it’s over.”
But opponents were almost gleeful that the tally on one of the two bills needed fell well short of the two-thirds vote required on the constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 299.
“We are optimistic that the votes are there to kill this,” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school and one of the leaders of forces opposed to the breakaway plan.
The session ends on June 4.
The vote on SB563 generally broke along party lines, with Republicans overwhelmingly behind the proposal and Democrats opposed.
Republicans enjoy a solid majority in the House — 58 to 45 with two independents — but need substantial Democrat support to reach the 70-vote target.
However, only four Democrats and one independent joined 54 Republicans for SB563, which required at least 53 votes.
One Republican joined 36 Democrats in voting “no” to the proposal.
Five Democrats and four Republicans missed the vote.
The two-bill package earlier won lopsided approval in the state Senate.
Backers contend the new district is needed because the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has failed students and parents for years.
The district carries a “D” rating from the state.
State Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the plan, disputed arguments that the new district is a bid by white families to get away from black students.
Ponti said the 10 schools that would be moved from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, and make up the new district, consist of 56 percent black students and 48 percent white students.
Enrollment totals about 6,800 students.
“It is not about race,” he said. “It is about a manageably-sized school district,” Ponti said.
But state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, said the new district would divide Baton Rouge.
Williams said that, as a 15-year-old student at Baton Rouge High School in 1967, he was one of the first black students who played on the basketball team.
“I heard people call me names,” Williams said. “I saw people spitting on me.”
But by the end of the school year, he said, “I saw white folks and black folks coming together.
“I have seen this community come together,” Williams added. “But now we are about to set it back.”
The new school zone would extend southeast from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.
Ponti noted that, under the plan, the new district, for the first time, would provide $2.5 million per year to help offset the costs of health benefits and other expenses left by teachers who leave the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to work in the new district.
“It is a very pro-active approach,” he said.
But state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish school board, said the district would need $6 million per year to offset the costs.
“$2.5 million does not even scratch the surface on what the legacy costs really are,” she said.
Norman Browning, president of Local Schools for Local Children, a community group that is leading support for the new district, watched the debate in the House.
“We are still confident that we will be able to get the 70 votes we need to pass the amendment,” Browning said after the vote.
If the plan passes the Legislature, it would be submitted to voters statewide on Nov. 6.
It would require the support of voters statewide and in East Baton Rouge Parish to take effect on July 1, 2013.
Voting FOR details of plan to set up a new public school district in southeast Baton Rouge (59): Speaker Kleckley and state Reps. Adams, Barras, Berthelot, Broadwater, Brown, Burford, H. Burns, T. Burns, Carmody, Carter, Champagne, Chaney, Cromer, Danahay, Fannin, Foil, Garofalo, Geymann, Greene, Guinn, Harris, Harrison, Havard, Hazel, Henry, Hensgens, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Howard, Huval, Lambert, N. Landry, Leopold, Ligi, Lopinto, Lorusso, Mack, Miller, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Ponti, Pope, Pugh, Richard, Richardson, Ritchie, Robideaux, Schexnayder, Schroder, Seabaugh, Shadoin, Simon, Talbot, Thibaut, Thompson and Whitney.
Voting AGAINST SB563 (37): State Reps. Armes, Arnold, Badon, Barrow, W. Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Cox, Dixon, Edwards, Franklin, Gaines, Gisclair, Hill, Honoré, Hunter, G. Jackson, K. Jackson, James, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Moreno, Norton, Ortego, Pierre, Price, Reynolds, Smith, St. Germain, Thierry, A. Williams, P. Williams and Willmott.
Not Voting (9): State Reps. Abramson, Anders, Billiot, S. Bishop, Connick, Dove, Guillory, Montoucet and Pylant.