Ex-EBR School Board member says he predicted system breakup

The first black member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board told an audience of about 200 people Thursday that years ago he predicted the break up of the parish’s school system.

Press Robinson, who served on the board from 1980 to 2002, recalled how in 1995 the city of Baker began pressing to gain its independence.

“I said publicly at a School Board meeting that if Baker left, next would be Zachary, next would be Central and next would be south Baton Rouge,” Robinson told those assembled Thursday at the Catholic Life Center. “I didn’t have a crystal ball. It just seemed logical.”

Robinson was on a panel looking at the history of school segregation and desegregation in Baton Rouge. It was part of a day-long “dialogue on race,” focusing on education, sponsored by Dialogue on Race Louisiana and a handful of other local social work and community service organizations.

As Robinson was speaking, the Education Committee in the state Senate was debating whether southeast Baton Rouge should be allowed to try to form its own school district, which would be the fifth in the parish. The committee passed the measure without objection.

The parish school system now has almost 43,000 students, more than 80 percent of whom are black and an even greater percentage live in poverty.

When Robinson joined the board in 1980, the school system had more than 64,000 students, and about 60 percent of the students were white and 40 percent were black.

Robinson said the federal litigation was already 24 years old when he joined the board and it would drag on for another 23 years. The fallout from that litigation helped spark the successful breakaway efforts of Baker, Zachary and Central.

Robinson blamed the failure of white leaders in Baton Rouge to reach an agreement then for the problems that have plagued education in Baton Rouge since.

He recalled how U.S. District Judge John Parker said he didn’t want to be superintendent, that he expected the school system to come up with a plan.

During those days in federal court with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department, Robinson said they were tantalizingly close at many points to coming to an agreement.

“We would have come up with a better plan than what Judge Parker ordered,” he said.

“Desegregation was not good for our community,” Robinson said. “It was probably the worst thing that has happened in our community since slavery.”

He said change will come only when all people in Baton Rouge realize “we’re all in the same boat” and have to work together to keep it afloat.