Bodi White, BRAC join forces on EBR school bills

EBR school bills seek decentralization

Often at odds in the past, state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, has joined forces with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to push legislation to shrink the size of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and to take power from the board and the superintendent and give it to school principals.

Late Tuesday, White filed legislation in the Senate almost identical to bills filed that same day in the House by Reps. Steve Carter and Dalton Honoré, both of Baton Rouge.

Senate Bill 636 would shift power to principals, while SB 672 would shrink the School Board from 11 to seven members. Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, is co-author of the latter bill.

Tuesday was the last day to file bills for the legislative session, which ends June 2.

White and BRAC were on opposite sides of fights in 2012 and 2013, when White came up short in trying create a breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge. The business lobbying organization also opposes an ongoing petition drive to create a city of St. George out of much of the unincorporated southern part of Baton Rouge.

White said that during the last month or so he has met with the chamber and some of his southeast Baton Rouge backers and along the way has been able to find common ground with the chamber. White said if the parish school system improves, it could lessen the need for an independent school district and increase support for public education among southeast Baton Rouge residents.

“Once they’re convinced that they have good principals coming, a good superintendent coming, they’ll have confidence again, they will start to come back to public schools, not all of them, but some of them,” White said.

He said he is setting aside other school legislation he’s filed.

That includes SB484, which would divide the East Baton Rouge Parish school system into four subdistricts, as well as SB354, which would make it easier for the state to create new breakaway school districts and retroactively bless the Southeast Baton Rouge District. That latter bill is awaiting action on the Senate floor.

White took some credit for BRAC’s efforts, saying “nothing would have changed” if he hadn’t pushed his legislation or if the St. George movement hadn’t happened.

White, however, said he might revive SB354 if things bog down with BRAC’s school legislation. He also said the BRAC-led reforms, if enacted, need to show results quickly or southeast residents may revive their breakaway efforts.

“I think they will be very watchful,” he said.

BRAC, which spent recent weeks developing the legislation, recruited Carter and Honoré, announcing that fact Monday, but did not mention that White also was filing the same legislation.

“He wanted to communicate his plans on his own, and we thought that was a good idea,” said Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the chamber.

Knapp said he began talking regularly with White and the two were able to overcome most of their differences.

“That’s a huge sign of support for alternatives to independent school districts,” Knapp said.

He said that from the beginning he was looking to “drill deeper” when it came to local control, going to the most local level of all, the school.

“It drives control and budgeting into the neighborhood and into the schools in a way that a future School Board can’t easily undo,” he said.

Knapp said he has no opinion about White’s SB354, though he said it has been tough to gain the two-thirds majority needed for final passage.

White said he’s not concerned at present that the legislation could lead to a rash of new charter schools in southeast Baton Rouge, an area largely free of such schools now.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said.