Breakaway EBR school district bills pass committee

Panel advances breakaway district package

A plan to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge edged closer to a late-session showdown Tuesday when a Louisiana House panel approved the package.

In party-line tallies, the two bills that make up the proposal each cleared the House Education Committee on 10-6 votes.

The votes followed more than three hours of often pointed testimony by parents, students and education officials.

Senate Bill 199 is the proposed change in state law and next faces review in the House Appropriations Committee.

The other measure, Senate Bill 73, is a proposed constitutional amendment and faces scrutiny in the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee over the ballot wording.

If both win approval at those stops, the plan will be decided in the full House, where the package died last year.

The key issue is whether the ballot measure can win the needed two-thirds majority, which is 70 votes in the House.

“It is the hardest thing I know of in the Legislature,” state Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rougeand sponsor of the plan, said of hurdles inside and outside the Legislature to set up a new school district.

The package won state Senate approval earlier this month.

Patricia Cook said her daughter arises at 4:50 a.m. to get to her magnet school because of problems with traditional public schools in southeast Baton Rouge.

“She gets on a bus at 5:55 a.m. every morning,” Cook said.

The mother added, “I have no high school friends who have kids in the East Baton Rouge school system. That’s sad.”

Opponents countered that the new district would end the ability of some parents to take advantage of magnet and gifted and talented schools that distinguish the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“My children will no longer have a choice,” said Laura Fernandez, the mother of three children who attend schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

The bills would remove 10 schools from the East Baton Rouge Parish system and set up the Southeast Community School District.

About 6,800 students use the schools now.

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.

Critics renewed charges that most of the schools are riddled with problems.

Tanya Jackson said she visits Woodlawn High School, one of those that would be affected.

“There’s a lack of respect,” Jackson told the committee. “There is a lack of discipline.”

White said the only reason he filed the bills is because of pleas from parents in the proposed district.

“They are not happy with public education,” White said. “I wish I didn’t have to be here.”

Local school leaders denounced the plan.

David Tatman, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, noted that the district’s state grade has risen from a D to a C.

“Is that good enough? No. We want to be an A. But each and every day we serve 43,000 kids.

“We are one of the largest school districts in the state and we are working our tails off to improve public education in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Tatman said.

In a new line of attack, opponents repeatedly charged that backers of the new district have failed to work out the financing.

Bernard Taylor, superintendent of Baton Rouge public schools, said a small school district in Michigan was forced to abruptly end its school year Tuesday.

“They ran out of money,” Taylor said. “Look at that situation, look at what is happening to those children and ask could it happen here.”

Norman Browning, president of the Local Schools for Local Children, which supports both bills, said he was bothered that opponents at an earlier hearing labeled the proposed district immoral and driven by racism.

“Members, failing our community for 30 years is morally wrong,” Browning said of the East Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

But state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the House committee, said the plan would essentially remove children from the Gardere area who now attend schools in the proposed district.

“The majority of those kids are African-American,” Williams said. “That’s immoral.”

When the next committee votes will occur, and any final debate in the full House, is unclear.

The session ends June 6.

If the two-bill package clears the Legislature it would have to earn a majority of votes statewide, and in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, to take effect.

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.

The votes on both bills were the same.

Voting YES on the two Senate bills that would create Southeast Community School District (10): State Reps. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Henry Burns, R-Haughton; Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette; Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville; Barry Ivey, R-Central; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette; Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux; Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City and Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.

Voting AGAINST Senate Bills 199 and 73 (6): State Reps. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; John Bel Edwards, D-Amite; Patrick Jefferson, D-Arcadia; Ed Price, D-Gonzales; Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge.