Inside Report: BR breakaway district not a done deal

The best thing that opponents of a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge have going for them is that backers still have hurdles to clear.

First and foremost is the requirement that part of the package has to gain two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature, which is 70 votes in the House.

That is roughly double what opponents have to get to kill the plan if everybody votes — 36 nays.

Backers have to get 70 House votes regardless of how many are in the chamber, which means when lawmakers disappear during floor debate it is even harder to round up the needed supermajority.

It also points up why it is much harder to get a bill through the hurdles in the Louisiana Legislature, and others, than to kill it.

Backers have to navigate half-a-dozen or so steps to get to the finish line, including committees, floor action and the governor’s office.

Opponents have to prevail at only one stop to kill legislation.

The proposals making waves for the second year in a row are Senate Bills 199 and 73.

They would carve out a new school system — the fourth of its kind — from the East Baton Rouge School District.

The boundaries of the new district would generally extend from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

Backers contend the 10-school setup would improve student performance by operating as a smaller unit, rather than being part of a 43,000-student system.

Opponents argue that yet another breakaway could send the district into a death spiral, one beset by financial problems and a lopsided number of students who live in poverty and all the education challenges that go with that.

Yet despite hours of testimony on both sides, the key issue is shaping up the same as last year: Can backers get 70 votes in the House?

The two-bill package breezed through the Senate, as it did last year. It won approval on Tuesday in the state House Education Committee, as it did last year.

Each bill faces reviews in two other House committees, where approval is expected, before a likely House showdown between now and adjournment on June 6.

But in an ominous sign for backers of the new district the votes are again splitting along party lines. Both bills passed the House Education Committee 10-6, with Republicans in favor, Democrats opposed and one legislator without party affiliation siding with the GOP.

Republicans in the House are generally more critical of public school failings, which is a key argument used by backers of the new district.

Democrats are less inclined to favor big changes in public schools, and far more critical of vouchers and other alternatives.

A similar party split killed the bill in 2012.

The constitutional amendment last year came within four votes of passing, 66-34. It won the support of all 58 Republicans in the House, six Democrats and two representatives without party affiliation. All of the “no” votes were cast by Democrats.

Three days later, the vote was 61-35 in favor, or nine votes sort of the two-thirds majority. The party makeup in the House this time is the same.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said earlier that he has a 50-50 chance of getting his plan through the House.

White said the vote requirements, and the need for approval by voters statewide and in the district as well, make setting up a new school district the most-daunting challenge in the Legislature.

“Sometimes I think it’s why it’s so hard to change public education,” he said.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com