EBR School Board agrees to downsize to 9 members

Shrugging off threats of litigation, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday narrowly approved a new map that reduces from 11 to nine the number of representatives serving on the School Board starting Jan. 1.

The winning plan, known as Freeman 9 Member 7, one of six introduced, was approved in a 6-5 vote after more than six hours of debate.

Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish will have nine School Board districts to vote on at the polls on Nov 4. Qualifying starts in just four weeks, Aug. 20 to 22.

Here’s how Thursday’s vote went:

For: Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Craig Freeman, Barbara Freiberg, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

No: Jerry Arbour, Vereta Lee, Mary Lynch, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Tarvald Smith.

The breakdown was identical to the vote in early May when the board hired Redistricting LLC to draw new maps.

Earlier Thursday, the board rejected three other plans by wide margins. It didn’t take up two others.

The new board that takes office Jan. 1 will have five majority-white districts and four majority black districts. Newly elected members will have 41,876 residents on average to represent, about 7,500 more residents than they represent now.

The new District 9 pits Tatman, the current board president, against Arbour, a former board president. In District 5, Evelyn Ware-Jackson will not face an incumbent because Freeman, while he lives in the new District 5, has said he’s not running for reelection.

Freeman requested the drawing up of the Freeman 9 Member 7 map. He was not overly enthused about it — he introduced an alternative to it Thursday which failed badly — saying he wrote it that way for practical reasons.

“In order to get this passed, I decided to appease folks,” he said.

The new districts replace an 11-member plan the board adopted two years ago. That plan was later approved by the U.S. Justice Department. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, in 2013 removed the requirement that Louisiana election districts must first gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department.

The Louisiana NAACP has promised to file suit, saying that all five proposed plans dilute the voting strength of racial minorities.

“I will make you work for what you’ve done tonight if you pass any of these plans,” Alfreda Tillman Bester, an attorney for the NAACP, said during the long debate before the vote.

“You can’t get better government by reducing the voices of dissent,” Bester said.

The last-minute redistricting also was opposed by the Democratic and Republican parties in the parish, as well as the parent group One Community, One School District, which started a petition that garnered 140 signatures.

“As a taxpayer, I want my dollars going to the education of my children and the children of this parish, and not to attorneys who are going to cost a lot of dollars to represent this school system,” said Belinda Davis, president of One Community, One School District.

Smith, the board vice president, described such widespread opposition as “historic,” speculating that even the tea party is opposed as well. He said it’s wrong to adopt new district lines this close to the election.

“This board is treading on very shaky ground if we do something not in the interest of this district tonight,” Smith said during the debate.

Noel Hammatt, who served on the board for 16 years before being defeated by Barbara Freiberg in 2010, said litigation is likely.

“You’re doing it on behalf of a few people who sit behind closed doors to try to run the schools, and to do it on behalf of an election, to get a little money, is a sin,” Hammatt said.

The most prominent supporter of reducing the size of the School Board is the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which sought unsuccessful legislation this spring to force such a reduction. Supporters argued that a smaller board would be more efficient and would save the school system money. Opponents argue that a smaller board makes it easier for special interest groups such as the chamber to swing elections in favor of their favored candidates.

The bill failed in part because School Board members said they would consider reducing the board on their own. No representative of the chamber spoke Thursday.

Bernard said she opposed the legislative proposal because it called for an at-large representative.

Freeman said there’s no evidence a larger board works better.

“Only a politician would say that more politicians would improve student achievement,” he said.

Freiberg noted Act 1 of the state Legislature in 2012 — the act is being challenged in court — reduced the powers of school boards.

“Because our duties have been reduced, we should reduce the number of members on the board,” Freiberg said.

Both Bernard and Freiberg said they particularly like how Jefferson Parish, which has nine members, is operating.

Scott Cornelius, who is studying geography at LSU, said smaller, for-profit corporate boards make sense, but not smaller government boards where the idea is to represent the people and where dissent is essential.

“I don’t see how you can come out to claim to represent the public and support these plans, because we are almost entirely against them,” Cornelius said.

Not all the speakers from the general public opposed board reduction.

Eugene Collins, a Baton Rouge resident, said smaller groups of people work more efficiently.

“A smaller unit decreases the chance of rhetoric and bickering on many levels,” Collins said.

James Finney, a board watcher, was so opposed to the proposals to reduce the board that he took the trouble to draw his own map, one that would make the board even larger with 15 members.

“I’m wondering what if any of this has to do with educating the children of East Baton Rouge Parish,” Finney said.

Board member Vereta Lee tried unsuccessfully to prevent one member, Freeman, from voting, a maneuver that would have forced a deadlock. Freeman is transferring from LSU to Oklahoma State University this fall but said he is maintaining his Baton Rouge residence through the rest of this term. Lee said Freeman doesn’t live here and should be made to leave the board.

The item was not on the agenda and in any case, Domoine Rutledge, general counsel, said a court would need to rule whether Freeman can stay.

W.T. Winfield, who was defeated by Freeman in 2010 and is running to return to the School Board, said business leaders won’t be satisfied with simply reducing the size of the board.

“When you think about what you’re doing tonight, remember the agenda is to eliminate you,” Winfield said.