Overhaul defeat latest in string of setbacks

Major bills to revamp the East Baton Rouge Parish school system have died six times in the Louisiana House since 2012, raising questions on whether and how any such measure can become law.

The hotly debated proposals are not the only ones dying.

The margins of defeat also are growing in the House, despite yearly support in the Senate.

The latest casualty, Senate Bill 636, would revamp the district mostly by giving school principals sweeping new authority.

It won approval in the full Senate and a House committee before getting crushed on the House floor on Wednesday 31-60, 22 votes shy of the minimum needed.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, chief sponsor of the legislation and a former House member, vowed to keep pushing similar measures.

“I don’t think it is a wall,” White said of House resistance to bills that would overhaul the East Baton Rouge Parish school district.

Consider that:

In 2012, bitterly debated Senate-passed constitutional amendments that would carve out a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge failed twice in the House.

In 2013, another Senate-passed constitutional amendment to do the same was shelved in the House when White and other backers concluded it lacked the needed two-thirds support.

Earlier this year, the House twice rejected a bill that would trim the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board from 11 to nine members in a bid to improve efficiency.

Support for the ballot measures for a new district in 2012 slipped from 66 of the needed 70 the first time to 61 on the second try.

In 2013, a similar bill was shelved after a revealing tally on a related proposal only got 57 votes, 13 shy of the minimum needed.

Earlier this year, the bill to shrink the School Board got 51 votes the first time — two short of the required minimum — and just 48 the second and final time.

Backers said the latest casualty — SB636 — would improve schools by giving principals more say-so and would help restore voter confidence in a troubled system.

Opponents said the bill illegally singled out one school system.

Critics also said the latest measure died in part because House members are tired of grappling with Baton Rouge public school issues.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a top opponent, said legislators made clear in their comments that they are “tired of dealing with East Baton Rouge Parish schools, tired of these bills coming forward.”

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, who tried to mediate differences between backers and opponents of the bill, agreed.

“There is, I think, some fatigue among members of continuing to take up issues that we really think should be dealt with at the local level,” said Broadwater, who voted “no” on the plan.

House Democrat Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who also voted “no” on the bill, said his colleagues are “tired of having issues brought before the Legislature that ought to be resolved locally by schools boards.

“And when that happens in the Legislature and the delegation who represents the parish is not all singing from the same songbook, it puts us in a terrible place,” said Edwards, a reference to lawmakers from outside the parish.

Lawmakers often defer to a local delegation on local issues.

But, in this case, area lawmakers were sharply divided.

The bill was backed by just eight members of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation and opposed by 12 others.

On the final tally, only four Democrats voted for the bill.

White blamed the defeat of the bill in part on opposition by lobbyists for the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Critics said those two groups convinced many House members outside the Baton Rouge area that, if the overhaul happened here, their school districts would be next.

White said both groups “are well-organized and have paid lobbyists.”

White sponsored the bill that set up the highly rated Central school system in 2006, which passed with lopsided majorities in both chambers after three tries.

“I don’t have the influence of when I worked over there for eight years,” he said. “And it has changed a lot.”

The latest measure, unlike the constitutional amendments needed to create a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge, only needed a 53-vote majority, not a 70-vote supermajority.

The influential Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which opposed the push for a new district, was the key force behind this year’s plan to give principals new authority, which was thought to boost its chances.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, one of the leaders of the opposition, said BRAC officials asked him early on to co-author the measure but not to disclose details to colleagues.

“The moment they told me not to share the bill, I told them no,” he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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