Judge allows school board elections to move forward

Clearing the way for qualifying to begin next week for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board elections this fall, state District Court Judge Tim Kelley on Friday denied all claims made by a group of parish residents seeking to block a new nine-member redistricting plan that shrunk the size of the board by two seats.

Friday’s 2½-hour hearing focused to a surprising degree on whether one board member, District 6 representative Craig Freeman, should have been removed from the board the night of the vote. The longtime LSU communications professor is in the process of moving to teach journalism at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a job he starts Monday.

The vote on July 24 was 6-5. Eliminating Freeman would have meant a 5-5 tie and the redistricting plan, of which Freeman was the author, would have failed.

Freeman, who is also a lawyer, made a surprise appearance Friday to defend himself. Fellow board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith told Kelley under oath that Freeman had told her in May he was going to move after the July 24 vote, but Freeman testified he didn’t recall that conversation.

Kelley ended up siding with Freeman, saying the board member continues to maintain his legal domicile in Baton Rouge.

“Starting Monday, that may not be true,” Kelley said, “but today it’s true.”

In testimony, Freeman revealed that his children withdrew from school in Baton Rouge on Aug. 7, they have moved into a house he’s purchased in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he’s in the process of selling his Garden District home.

Freeman said he will continue to live in District 6 once his house sells but at a residence he’s leasing on East Buchanan Street near Buchanan Elementary School. He intends to serve the rest of his term, which ends Dec. 31. “People are entitled to their own opinion,” Freeman said after the hearing. “But facts are facts.”

Qualifying starts Wednesday and concludes Friday for the Nov. 4 elections.

Alfreda Bester, who represented the nine plaintiffs and is general counsel for the Louisiana NAACP, said she will speak with her clients about whether to try again with Kelley to seek a permanent rather than just a preliminary injunction, or whether to appeal to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.

“I’m very disappointed. My client is very disappointed,” Bester said. “These things happen.”

Kelley told Bester it is “extremely unlikely” he would grant a permanent injunction if Bester pursues that option.

Kelley also ruled against claims that the new maps are invalid because the School Board had previously reapportioned in November 2012 in response to the 2010 U.S. Census, with maps that maintained 11 districts. The nine-member district maps approved July 24 supplant the ones approved 21 months before.

Bester argued that a Dec. 31, 2012, deadline in state law for local governments to reapportion barred further redistricting using the previous decennial census data. Kelley disagreed.

“Nothing prohibits reapportioning midterm,” Kelley ruled.

Kelley also dismissed arguments that the new maps were not properly advertised in The Advocate in advance of the vote and that the constitutional rights of candidates were violated because the plan was approved the day after the deadline for qualifying by nomination, a move that can save a candidate hundreds of dollars in qualifying fees.

Bester said Friday that a federal court challenge remains a possibility. She has repeatedly argued the reduction in districts violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by diluting minority voting strength. That issue was not addressed in the suit heard Friday.

Mike McClanahan, the president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, is the lead plaintiff in the suit. Other plaintiffs include Noel Hammatt, a former four-term School Board member; Byron Sharper, a former Metro Council member; and Merritt E. McDonald, who unsuccessfully ran for a School Board seat a few years ago. In addition, Chrishunda Harris, Jeanette L. Harrison, James C. Finney, William J. Glasper Sr. and Russell J. Stokes Jr. are also listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

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 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 than they represent now.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Aug. 18, 2014, to correct the spelling of Judge Tim Kelley’s surname, which was incorrectly spelled Kelly in the original story.