Bill would divide EBR school system

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS. Sen. Bodi White speaks during a Baton Rouge Press Club luncheon in February 2012. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS. Sen. Bodi White speaks during a Baton Rouge Press Club luncheon in February 2012.

A Central lawmaker has introduced legislation to divide the East Baton Rouge Parish school system into four subdistricts, including one in the southeastern part of the parish similar to a school district created on paper a year ago.

School Superintendent Bernard Taylor said the bill smacks of “separate but equal,” an apparent attempt to return to the days of Jim Crow that was “sad beyond words.”

Senate Bill 484, prefiled late Friday by Republican State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, would place the four new subdistricts under the umbrella of the parish school system, which would still have a School Board and a superintendent.

Each subdistrict, though, would have a deputy superintendent, who would establish the geographic boundaries of the subdistricts, draw attendance zones for each school within those boundaries and hire principals. Principals would, in turn, hire school staffs and manage the budgets of those schools.

SB 484 would require a majority vote of the Legislature to gain approval. The Legislature starts its regular session March 10.

Taylor, who said he saw the bill for the first time on Friday, said it raises more questions than it answers.

He said he’s particularly troubled by how it would divide up students, preventing students in one subdistrict from going to school in another subdistrict.

“There’s a JC involved in this. It’s not Jesus Christ, but it is Jim Crow. It’s sad beyond words,” Taylor said.

The new subdistricts would be called North, Mid-City, Southeast and South. The bill, however, includes no map or written description of the new boundaries.

The parish School Board would have to “provide for an equitable allocation of school facilities and student population” for each subdistrict. Each subdistrict would also have at least one magnet program each at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

No Louisiana public school district is currently divided into subdistricts, and it’s not clear the legal implications of dividing a traditional district in such a manner.

“I wonder if this is even legal or constitutional,” Taylor said.

White did not respond to messages Friday seeking comment.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system educated students from across the parish until 2003, when Baker and Zachary broke away to form independent school districts. Central followed suit four years later.

White sponsored legislation in 2012 and 2013 to create a fifth breakaway district in the parish in southeast Baton Rouge but came up short each time.

SB 484 is a much different approach. And because it calls for the creation of “subdistricts” as opposed to traditional districts, it may sidestep the necessity of amending the Louisiana Constitution, where past efforts stumbled.

White was able to get a majority but not a supermajority of two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. And even if he had cleared that high bar, the proposed new district still needed the approval of voters statewide and in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Southeast school supporters have since shifted gears, gathering signatures for a petition to incorporate the unincorporated areas of the southeastern portion of the parish into a new city of St. George. If successful, supporters then plan to try to form an independent school district.

White also is seeking to make it easier to create a breakaway school district like Baker, Central and Zachary.

He prefiled Senate Bill 354, which would amend the state constitution to eliminate language that bars school districts from levying taxes and receiving state education funding unless they are added by name to the constitution.

Currently, Article 8, Section 13 of the state constitution limits to the state’s 64 parishes and “city school systems” the number of school districts with authority to levy taxes and to have access to the state’s funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program.

The section specifies that five “municipal and other school systems” — Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as municipal districts in Bogalusa and Monroe — “and no others” have this authority. These five districts are “regarded and treated as parishes and shall have the authority granted parishes,” the article states.

White would remove the words “no others.” He would replace it with “and any other public school system created by the Legislature.” The only such district not already named in the constitution is the Southeast Community school district.

The proposed constitutional amendment would still require a statewide vote, which would occur Nov. 4, but would not require an additional vote of approval by East Baton Rouge Parish voters.