EBR parish schools revamp fails in La. House

A bid to overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school system was crushed Wednesday in the Louisiana House, setting off a gleeful celebration among opponents of one of the most divisive topics of the 2014 session.

The proposal, Senate Bill 636, failed 31-60.

The margin was so lopsided — 22 votes short of the minimum needed — that the legislation is considered dead for the session, which ends at 6 p.m. on Monday.

Parents and other opponents of the bill in the House gallery, many wearing red “Stop SB636” stickers, erupted in cheers when the tally was announced.

Bernard Taylor Jr., superintendent of the school district, who was among top officials on hand for the vote, was shaking hands and sharing hugs with allies moments later. “The legislators heard loud and clear that this is not something that will improve student achievement,” Taylor said.

Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a key backer of the bill, declined to speculate on reasons for the lopsided defeat. “I don’t want to armchair quarterback,” Knapp said in an interview.

The bill passed the state Senate 23-12 on April 30, and state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, SB636’s chief sponsor, expressed hopes of passage earlier in the day.

The key feature of the measure would give school principals in the district sweeping new budget and other authority, which backers said would pave the way for better results in the classroom. It would place principals under two-year management contracts and hold them responsible for meeting goals on key exams, graduation and college acceptance rates.

The measure is also aimed at improving parental and community involvement in district schools, in part by setting up advisory councils to hammer out academic, discipline and other expectations.

“The entire business community recognizes that we need to do something,” said House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the legislation.

But opponents denounced the measure as legislative meddling in a single school district at a time when Taylor and others are trying to forge changes.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, an attorney, said the measure would violate the state Constitution’s ban on local and special legislation.

“This is a bill that has a constitutional problem from the outset,” Edwards told the House.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said the plan was opposed by 40 of the district’s school principals, 29 ministers and 14 parent-teacher groups.

James warned that, while the East Baton Rouge school district was the target of Wednesday’s debate, colleagues who voted for it would find similar efforts aimed at their own school systems in the future.

Belinda Davis, president of One Community One School District, was among district allies who celebrated the vote just outside the House chamber.

“I believe that legislators believe that local communities and their parents ought to be in charge of education in their district,” Davis said.

“And this bill was the exact opposite of that,” she said. “So they have left local parents and local registered voters in control of their own school district, and this is the way it ought to be.”

The vote marked the third consecutive year that legislation to overhaul the district cleared Senate and House committee hurdles before dying on the House floor.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the district, said the bill was a bid by lawmakers to micromanage the local school system.

“The legislators saw that,” Rutledge said. “We had a broad base of opposition.”

Carter told the House that the C-rated district is plagued by problems, including school incidents that have resulted in dozens of arrests.

He said the proposal stemmed from talks that began in January and would mirror changes made in 40 large school systems nationally. He disputed criticism that the changes would be harmful.

“I just don’t understand why there is so much turmoil on this,” Carter said. “I think it is a positive bill.”

White, asked about the House vote a few hours later, said in recent days that officials of the Louisiana Association of Superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association worked to defeat the bill.

“They don’t want to see any change to public education that maybe would affect them one day,” he said.

“It is just really a protection of the turf and the money,” White said. “That is what they are doing. It is a shame.”

In a prepared statement, BRAC said problems that sparked the legislation remain.

“The community faces a crisis of confidence in the status quo of East Baton Rouge Parish public education,” the statement says.

Lionel Rainey III, spokesman for the Committee to Incorporate the City of St. George, said in a prepared statement that White’s bill was “defeated by a swarm of lobbyists, unions, magnet parents and special interest groups.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.