Inside Report: Iberville School Board election law going before Legislature

The Iberville Parish School Board’s Dec. 17 approval of its new redistricting plan was a vote clouded with controversy and confusion.

It was controversial because Darlene Ourso accused her fellow board members of breaking the law when the board’s majority approved a plan to reduce the 15-member board to 13 representatives.

Ourso based her allegation on a 2010 state law requiring the School Board be reduced to nine members: eight elected from single-member districts and one elected at large.

The law was passed by the state Legislature through a bill authored by former Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, and is set to take effect for the School Board’s upcoming elections in 2014.

The School Board in December approved the 13-member plan after Glenn Koepp, of Redistricting LLC, told the board it could ignore the 2010 law, which had not been precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And that’s where the confusion arises.

“The federal law says until a state law is precleared, it cannot be implemented,” Koepp — whose firm the board hired to sketch out new district lines — told the board July 9.

Who’s right? Koepp or Ourso?

It may not matter, if Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Port Allen, can garner enough support during this legislative session to suspend the 2010 mandate.

Under a bill Ward prefiled for this session, lawmakers will be asked to suspend the provisions of the 2010 law for the election of Iberville Parish School Board members in 2014 and future elections.

Ward said he has received a lot of pressure from parish officials to deal with the issue “once and for all.”

“You’re dealing with something that has been hanging over the School Board’s head for awhile,” Ward said.

“My goal is to put this issue on the shelf. The board has already approved a 13-member plan and I support that. I think that would fall more in line with the number of representatives on the Parish Council,” which has 13 members.

Ward said he didn’t know the entire backstory as to why Marionneaux felt the board no longer needed six of its members, but Ward said one of the arguments he’s heard was that there are larger school districts in the state that have smaller school boards.

“Just because there is a large membership of a board doesn’t mean it can’t run effectively,” Ward said. “I think dropping it down to 13 is just a good place to start, and I’m under the impression a strong majority of the School Board is in favor of this (bill).”

Ourso isn’t one of them.

Ourso is among those on the board who favor a nine-member plan.

“We have way too many School Board members,” Ourso said. “The number of board members we have with the number of students we serve is way out of whack.”

Ourso makes a valid point.

Ascension and Livingston parishes, for example, have school systems with more than 20,000 students, but school boards with only 11 and nine members, respectively.

As of April 5, there were 4,613 students enrolled in Iberville Parish schools.

For a School Board that rarely makes unanimous decisions because of underlying tension among its members, maybe less truly is more.

“I’m not sure why Sen. Ward thinks we should go to 13 board members,” Ourso said. “I don’t think we should be offering up bills to suspend the law. Laws are written to be followed and we’re not following the law.”

Terry L. Jones covers West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes for The Advocate. He can be reached at tjones@theadvocate.com.