Bill to trim East Baton Rouge school board fails

A bid to shrink the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board failed Wednesday in the Louisiana House, likely killing the measure for the session.

The vote was 48-44, which is five votes short of the minimum needed to pass.

The tally was a drop from one on the same bill on April 28, when it fell two votes shy of the required minimum.

The proposal is House Bill 1178 by state Rep. Dalton Honor é, D-Baton Rouge.

Honoré said trimming the size of the board from 11 to nine members would make it more efficient and save money.

“I came here to try to make changes, and the school system is one of the changes I want to see made,” he said.

Honoré also said that, since the first House vote on the issue, the East Baton Rouge Parish school board has hired a demographer to assist with its redistricting efforts, including the possibility of trimming the panel to nine or seven members.

Opponents said the fact the board is grappling with the issue is a good reason not to pass a state law.

“Let them do their job,” said state Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge. “This is local governance.”

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, challenged Honoré’s claim that the board backs his legislation.

“They are not in favor of this bill,” said Smith, a former board member herself. “They are in favor of doing their own redistricting themselves.”

The proposal was backed by officials of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and opposed by leaders of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, noted that, under an amendment added to the bill earlier, Honoré’s proposal would be null and void if the local board finished any redistricting effort by Aug. 1.

However, state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge and sponsor of that addition, said he still opposed the measure.

James called Honoré’s plan unconstitutional.

The bill is one of several pending in the Legislature that would revamp district operations.

Another Senate-passed proposal awaiting House action, Senate Bill 636, would try to improve the school system by giving principals sweeping new authority.

It too is causing major controversy.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, repeatedly quizzed Honoré on why the bill was needed if local officials were addressing the issue.

“The East Baton Rouge Parish school system can do this,” Edwards said.

Honore repeatedly said board officials see a need to act on the issue.

“It is a local bill and I live here in East Baton Rouge Parish,” he said.

Barrow apologized to colleagues for the rash of bills on the school system in recent years, including hotly-debated measures to set up a new district in southeast Baton Rouge in 2012 and 2013.

Both failed.

“I am very sorry that we have put you in these situations,” she said.

Barrow also noted that she has filed a resolution to launch a study after the session on Baton Rouge public schools.

She said that is preferrable to a “patch approach” of bills rushed through during 60 or 90-day legislative sessions.

Smith told the House that two years ago, opponents of bills to revamp teacher tenure rules and to expand Louisiana’s voucher program correctly predicted that the laws would spark lawsuits and this one would too.

“It is unfortunate that we seem to think it is OK for the state to go to court and lose cases deemed unconstitutional,” she said.