Breakaway school district clears another legislative step

After more than two hours of arguments, a bill that would pave the way for a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge cleared its second committee Monday.

The Senate Finance panel approved the measure 8-1.

It next faces action on the state Senate floor, along with a separate constitutional amendment that is part of the package.

The more than two-hour hearing was supposed to focus on costs associated with the new district. But backers and opponents renewed arguments about the merits of the plan, which sparked a lengthy controversy last year before narrowly failing in the House.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and sponsor of the proposal, said parents behind the move deserve the change because the area is dominated by schools rated C, D and F by the state.

“I would not put my child in a C, D or F school,” White told the committee in closing comments. “That is the reason we are here today.”

Opponents charged that the new district would leave behind an East Baton Rouge Parish school system that would be 90 percent minority and carry high numbers of special education students and those from poor families.

“I do not think it is in the best interest of any of the children,” said Bernard Taylor, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

The plan requires approval by the Legislature and a majority of voters statewide, and in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, to take effect.

In a key issue, the constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate and House — 26 and 70 respectively — to move to the ballot.

The legislation approved Monday is Senate Bill 199. The constitutional amendment is Senate Bill 73.

The package would move 10 public schools in the parish school system to the newly created Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District for about 6,800 students initially.

It would generally extend from the Interstate 10-12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

Spending arguments focused on how the change would affect state aid, retirement and borrowing costs to the East Baton Rough Parish school system.

Backers said state aid for the East Baton Parish district would rise by about $160 per student and that other districts statewide would be protected from possible financial losses for four years.

White also said he will work with Jim Richardson, alumni professor of economics at LSU whose 2012 study is being used by opponents of the bills, to come up with an agreeable plan for how retirement costs will be paid for former district employees.

Richardson’s study said the East Baton Rouge school system faces an annual tab of $35 million for health care and other cost of former employees, and that those expense will rise noticeably if the new district becomes reality.

The review was done in part for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which opposed last year’s plan.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the district, told the panel that the new district would hurt others statewide and leave a gaping financial hole in the district’s retirement and bond indebtedness budgets.

“This bill is not fixable,” Rutledge said. “It is morally wrong.”

Opponents also said the rise in state aid would be woefully short of what is needed.

State funds for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system would drop by $19.3 million per year and the Southeast district would collect $20.2 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Under the plan, the new district would be required to reimburse East Baton Rouge Parish school officials annually for the debt incurred on transferred buildings, which is now about $9 million.

The new district would include Parkview Oaks, Jefferson Terrace, Westminster, Cedarcrest, Wedgewood, Shenandoah and Woodlawn elementary schools; Southeast and Woodlawn middle schools and Woodlawn High School.

Voting FOR a breakaway school district (8): State Sens. Norby Chabert, D-Houma; Brett Alain, R-Jeanerette, Sherri Smith Buffington, R-Keithville, Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport and Bodi White, R-Central.

Voting against SB199 (1): state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans.