Group decries plans to cut the size of the EBR School Board

A parents group in Baton Rouge laid out a lengthy case Wednesday night against reducing the size of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, saying the plan lacks research to justify it and would give extra advantage to wealthier candidates and the special interests who support them.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the state NAACP told the same audience that the civil rights organization will sue if any of the five proposed new maps, ranging from 10 to as few as seven districts, are adopted as is.

Tania Nyman gave the presentation for the group One Community, One School District in a meeting at the new Main Library. The audience of about 50 was dominated by people opposed to reducing the size of the School Board.

Nyman said it’s suspicious that the planned July 24 vote by the School Board on reducing its size is taking place so close to Aug. 20-22, when candidates will qualify for the Nov. 4 School Board elections.

“This will reduce the pool of candidates,” Nyman said.

Nyman, however, said her organization is interested in improving the School Board and will be active in the coming elections in trying to get candidates to show how they will work more effectively to improve schools in Baton Rouge.

“Just because we are against reducing the size of the School Board does not mean we are for the status quo,” Nyman said.

Alfred Tillman Bester with the NAACP said the five proposed maps dilute African-American voting strength on the School Board and will increase the population in each district, making good representation more difficult. She also noted that any new redistricting plan will not have been pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department, in contrast to the 11-member plan the board approved in November 2012, which has already gotten approval from the federal government.

“These plans, trust me, will be challenged if they pass,” Bester said.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber is the most prominent supporter of shrinking the size of the board. The business lobbying group drew up and pushed legislation to force a size reduction on the board, saying such a move would save money and make the body more efficient. Opponents argued it was a political move meant to make it easier to elect board members more favorable to the chamber.

The legislation fell short in the spring in the state House of Representatives. The House also voted down companion legislation, also developed by the chamber, that would have stripped much of the power from the School Board and the superintendent and instead give it to principals.

The School Board, however, may still do what the Legislature wouldn’t, at least when it comes to shrinking the board.

Nyman noted that Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby recently said he is forming a coalition of like-minded groups to recruit and raise money for School Board candidates. A smaller board would make it easier, Nyman said, for individuals like Grigsby to have influence because larger districts require candidates to raise more money to win.

“How many in this room feel like they go head to head against Lane Grigsby in a campaign?” she asked.

“I’m going to,” shouted out W.T. Winfield, a past School Board member who lost in 2010 and is running to get back on the board.

Nyman said supporters of School Board reduction are pointing to a single study suggesting that effective boards have six to seven members. That study, however, focuses on the boards of for-profit companies, she said, and it also doesn’t take into account the corporate and nonprofit boards, which on average are much larger than that.

“There is a tendency when a company gets more complex to add board members,” she said.

Nyman also pointed out that several large school systems in Louisiana have boards as large or larger than East Baton Rouge’s board.

Board member Barbara Freiberg said she thinks Jefferson Parish, which has a nine-member board, is a good model for East Baton Rouge Parish, saying Jefferson functions better with a smaller board.

Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle urged the board to not accept blindly the arguments of local business leaders that a smaller board is a good idea, arguing instead that the “train is being driven” by people who don’t have the public interest at heart.

“For us to step back and allow people to control our city is wrong, in my mind,” Marcelle said.