Backers plan to retry breakaway legislation
A proposal to set up a new public school district in southeast Baton Rouge fell four votes short of approval Wednesday in the Louisiana House.
The vote was 66-34 in favor of the measure, which is Senate Bill 299.
However, backers need a two-thirds majority — 70 votes in the 105-member House — since the measure is a proposed constitutional amendment.
Supporters said they plan a last-ditch bid to pass the plan before the Legislature adjourns on Monday at 6 p.m.
“We’ve still got a few days left,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and chief backer of the effort.
The proposal, as in previous votes, generally broke along party lines.
The measure won the support of all 58 Republicans in the House, six Democrats and two representatives without party affiliation.
All the “no” votes were cast by Democrats.
All five members who missed the vote are Democrats.
That means backers need to hold their ranks, enlist some Democrats who missed the vote to join their side or persuade others to switch sides.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and a leading opponent of the plan, said she is confident that opponents of the new district will prevail.
“I believe so, I think so,” Smith said moments after the vote.
The proposal would move 10 schools from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to a newly-created school zone called the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District.
The new district would extend southeast from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.
Backers contend the change is needed because East Baton Rouge Parish public schools have failed students and parents for years.
The system carries a “D” rating from the state.
Opponents said another breakaway district — three others have already been created — would leave in its wake a school system marked by high poverty, academic and financial problems.
The Senate has already passed the constitutional amendment.
And both chambers have passed a companion measure, Senate Bill 563, that would spell out details of the new district in state law. It required a simple majority, which is 53 votes in the House.
However, both bills have to pass for the new district to be submitted to voters on Nov. 6.
It would then need majority support statewide, as well as in East Baton Rouge Parish, to take effect on July 1, 2013.
During a 30-minute debate, state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge and House sponsor of the amendment, urged House members to give voters a chance to decide the issue.
Ponti said 20 to 25 schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system already face major, state-engineered changes because of poor performance. “The people did not have a voice in that,” Ponti said.
But Smith, a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish school board, accused backers of using pressure tactics to win approval for the amendment.
“Some of you have threats against votes on the Senate side,” she told the House.
Laura Fernandez, whose children attend magnet schools in the East Baton Rouge school system, opposes the legislation and said afterwards that she was pleased by the outcome.
“If this happens my children will have the choice of going to one school, the one elementary school designated for their grade,” Fernandez said.
Norman Browning, president of Local Schools for Local Children, a community group that is leading support for the measure, said he was disappointed that the issue focused in part on race and party loyalties.
“I don’t know why they are afraid to give people a chance to vote,” Browning said.
Last week the companion bill to the amendment won approval 60-38, which meant backers were well short of the 70 needed for the amendment.
One Democrat, state Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill of Dry Creek, opposed that measure but voted for the constitutional amendment.
Two Democrats who missed that vote, state Reps. Jack Montoucet of Crowley and Mickey Guillory of Eunice, also voted “yes” on the ballot measure.
State Rep. Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner, voted against the companion bill last week but for the constitutional amendment on Wednesday.
Voting FOR the constitutional amendment necessary to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge (66): Mr. Speaker Kleckley and state Reps, Adams, Barras, Berthelot, S. Bishop, Broadwater, Brown, Burford, H. Burns, T. Burns, Carmody, Carter, Champagne, Chaney, Connick, Cromer, Dove, Fannin, Foil, Garofalo, Geymann, Greene, Guillory, Guinn, Harris, Harrison, Havard, Hazel, Henry, Hensgens, Hill, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Howard, Huval, Lambert, N. Landry, Leopold, Ligi, Lopinto, Lorusso, Mack, Miller, Montoucet, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Ponti, Pope, Pugh, Pylant, Richard, Richardson, Ritchie, Robideaux, Schexnayder, Schroder, Seabaugh, Shadoin, Simon, Talbot, Thibaut, Thompson, Whitney and Willmott.
Voting AGAINST SB299 (34): State Reps. Arnold, Badon, Barrow, Billiot, W. Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Cox, Dixon, Edwards, Franklin, Gaines, Gisclair, Honore, Hunter, G. Jackson, K. Jackson, James, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Moreno, Norton, Ortego, Pierre, Price, Reynolds, Smith, St. Germain, Thierry and P. Williams.
Not Voting (5): Reps. Abramson, Anders, Armes, Danahay and , A. Williams.