Senate panel advances bill to ease creation of new school districts

A bill that would make it easier to create new school districts in the Baton Rouge area and elsewhere breezed through the state Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

The proposal, Senate Bill 354, won approval without objection.

It next faces action in the full Senate.

Under current rules, new school districts have to survive a two-step process.

They have to win approval as a state law, which requires majority approval in the Legislature. They also have to be passed as a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support in the House and Senate and majority approval statewide.

SB354, which is sponsored by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, would essentially ask voters whether districts could be approved strictly through majority support in the Legislature.

White’s bid to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge failed the past two years.

In both cases, the change in state law won majority approval in the House and Senate but failed to muster the two-thirds vote on the constitutional amendment needed in the House.

White said he is frequently asked why proposed new districts have to be placed on a statewide ballot.

He said that when the 1974 state Constitution was crafted it was never envisioned that public education would be in such a flux that efforts to create new districts would be commonplace.

White’s bill would require the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and a majority of voters statewide in Nov. 4.

“All this does is let the state vote one time,” he told the committee.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, urged the committee to reject the bill.

Davis, whose group also opposed White’s bid for a new district last year, said proposed new school districts require statewide attention because they affect state aid for public schools statewide, retirement costs and other issues.

“I urge you to keep this hurdle in place,” Davis said.

Others opposed included the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Central, Baker and Zachary have already formed their own school districts after breaking away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

The failure of the southeast district in 2012 and 2013 helped spark a bid by St. George residents to form their own municipality, including a school district that they say would be superior to the East Baton Rouge School District.

Opponents argue that the effort would damage East Baton Rouge Parish economically and in other areas.