NAACP prepares challenge to new School Board districts

Residents interested in running for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will have just nine seats to pursue when qualifying begins two weeks from now — two fewer seats than available during the last elections held in 2010.

The School Board approved a new nine-member plan by a narrow 6-5 vote on July 24. The Louisiana NAACP has promised to challenge in federal court to this last-minute redistricting, arguing that the new maps dilute minority voting strength. The civil rights organization wants a court to revert the School Board back to the 11-member plan it approved in November 2012, a plan which already cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.

Alfreda Tillman Bester, general counsel for the NAACP, said Wednesday she is preparing litigation that she hopes to file any day now to try to stop the new maps from being in place at qualifying, which takes place Aug. 20-22.

“Getting very close,” she said.

On paper, the racial balance on the board is similar.

The 11 current districts break down into six majority white and five majority black districts. The new board that takes office Jan. 1 will have five majority-white districts and four majority black districts.

See the two district maps here.

Newly drawn District 5 is drawing objections from some local black leaders. First-term board member, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who is black, is the incumbent — board member Craig Freeman says he’s not running again.

District 5, however, is composed of 55 percent black versus 42 percent white residents. In the 2012 plan, which has been jettisoned, the lowest black majority was in District 6. That district had 59 percent black versus 33 percent white residents.

John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based political and demographic analyst, pointed out in a blog post that ran soon after the July 24th vote that the 55 percent figure is misleading.

Black voting registration in the new District 5 is 50 percent black versus 46 percent white. And at election time, those 25 precincts are more white still.

Even at peak black turnout during the 2008 and 2012 president elections, white voters showed up in greater numbers, 49 to 47 percent each time. In a lower black turnout elections, such as the 2010 Senate race between David Vitter and Charlie Melancon, the white advantage grew to 56 percent versus 41 percent black.

Couvillon, president of JMC Analytics and Polling, said counts of residents leave out a lot.

“The census data are illusory in terms of actual voting strength,” he said. “You could make an argument that’s there’s regression going on.”

Those nine School Board members who take office next year will represent more people than the current ones, 41,876 residents on average. That’s a 22 percent increase, or about 7,500 more residents, compared to 2010 districts.

They will, however, still earn the same pay. That’s $9,600 per year for an ordinary member and $10,800 a year for the board president, along with travel and benefits, for what is considered legally a part-time job. Those salary levels have remain unchanged for decades. Eliminating two board members will save taxpayers at least $19,200 a year in salaries.

The new District 9 pits David Tatman, the current board president, against Arbour, a former board president. Arbour has said he’s still deciding whether to run for a third School Board term or whether to run instead for an open judicial post, but said he will have the advantage if he does run for reelection.

Both Tatman and Arbour are Republicans, and District 9 is very Republican.

In 2010, Arbour won by just 100 votes in a race against a Democrat. The new District 9, however, is 21 percent black, largely from the south Sherwood Forest area. It could prove a key swing vote in a close race.

“If you have a race between a Republican and a Republican, that 20 percent can decide the winner,” Couvillon said.