First of two bills for new Baton Rouge school district passes

One of two bills needed to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge won final approval Thursday in the Louisiana House of Representatives on a 58-35 vote.

However, the tally was well under the 70 “yes” votes needed on the crucial second measure, a proposed constitutional amendment that requires two-thirds House support for the plan to remain alive.

“I never said it was going to be easy,” state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and chief sponsor of the plan, said afterwards.

The bill decided on Thursday, Senate Bill 199, spells out details of the new school district in state law.

White said the showdown vote, this one was Senate Bill 73, may take place on Monday, which would be three days ahead of the Legislature’s adjournment.

He said he hopes to avoid a “light House,” which is a legislative term for numerous lawmakers being away from the chamber.

“It is hard to get 100 people on the floor,” White said.

A key opponent of the proposal said he thinks that, for the second consecutive year, the proposed ballot measure will likely die on the House floor and end the debate for 2013.

“I am very optimistic about where we are,” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, whose leaders are among top opponents of the plan.

Under the proposal, 10 elementary, middle and high schools that are now part of the East Baton Rouge school system would be carved out to form a new setup called the Southeast Community school system.

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

State Rep. Eric Ponti, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the bill approved on Thursday, said residents in the area are demanding the change and that about 7,000 students will benefit from a more compact school district.

“The parents want this,” Ponti said in closing comments moments before the vote. “It is a local issue.”

Opponents stopped just short of charging that the new district is in part racially motivated.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a former member of the East Baton Parish School Board, said some backers of the new district have complained about children being bused to schools in the affected area, including A-rated Shenandoah Elementary School.

“And the majority of those children are African-American children,” Smith said.

Last year a bill similar to the one approved Thursday passed the House by a nearly identical margin: 59-37.

But a few days later the constitutional amendment fell four votes short of winning final approval.

On Thursday’s vote eight, Democrats and one “No Party” lawmaker joined Republicans behind the plan.

Four Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the proposal.

Of 12 House members listed as absent seven are Democrats, four are Republicans and one is “No Party.”

Ponti said that, since the package died last year, backers have taken steps to ensure that the East Baton Rouge Parish School District is not crippled by financial problems, and that the new district will pave the way for an additional $161 per student for the existing system.

Opponents contend East Baton Rouge public schools will be saddled with costs for retirees, school options will end for thousands of students and 90 percent of students in the district left behind will live in poverty.

“It is very clear to me you don’t have a clue as to how this is going to impact the rest of the district,” said state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge and an opponent of the bill.

Ponti replied, “I’ll agree to disagree.”

Any plan approved by the Legislature would be submitted to voters statewide.

It would have to win majority approval, including in East Baton Rouge Parish, to take effect.

Areas covered include Parkview Oaks, Jefferson Terrace, Westminster, Cedarcrest, Wedgewood, Shenandoah and Woodlawn elementary schools; Southeast and Woodlawn middle schools and Woodlawn High School.

VOTING FOR A NEW SCHOOL DISTRICT IN SOUTHEAST BATON ROUGE (57): Speaker Kleckley, and state Reps. Adams, Armes, Barras, Berthelot, S. Bishop, Broadwater, Burford, H. Burns, T. Burns, Carmody, Carter, Champagne, Chaney, Connick, Danahay, Fannin, Garofalo, Greene, Guinn, Harris, Harrison, Hazel, Henry, Hensgens, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Ivey, Lambert, N. Landry, Leopold, Lopinto, Lorusso, Mack, Miller, Montoucet, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Ponti, Pope, Pugh, Pylant, Reynolds, Richard, Robideaux, Schexnayder, Schroder, Seabaugh, Shadoin, Stokes, Talbot, Thibaut, Thompson, Whitney and Willmott.

VOTING AGAINST SB199 (36): State Reps. Badon, Barrow, Billiot, W. Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Cox, Cromer, Edwards, Foil, Franklin, Gaines, Guillory, Honore, Howard, Hunter, Huval, G. Jackson, K. Jackson, James, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Moreno, Norton, Ortego, Pierre, Price, Ritchie, Smith, Thierry, A. Williams and P. Williams.

NOT VOTING (12): State Reps. Abramson, Anders, Arnold, Brown, Dixon, Dove, Geymann, Gisclair, Havard, Hill, Simon and St. Germain.