Breakaway district bill advances

Nearing a showdown vote, a House committee Wednesday approved one of the bills aimed at creating a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

The vote was 14-7 in the House Appropriations Committee, which reviewed the bill for the cost impact.

The measure, Senate Bill 199, next faces action in the full House.

A companion measure, Senate Bill 73, is a proposed ballot measure that is awaiting action in a separate committee.

If it wins committee approval, as expected, both bills will face a late-session showdown in the House, where the plan died last year.

The proposal would carve out a new school district that includes 10 elementary, middle and high schools that are now part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Backers say parents are demanding the overhaul, mostly because of years of low achievement and other problems in the current district.

“This is the right thing to do,” state Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the plan, in closing comments to the committee.

Bernard Taylor, superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, renewed his session-long opposition to the plan.

“This is wrong; it is misguided,” Taylor said.

White said that, if the new district becomes reality, the East Baton Rouge system would collect an additional $5.5 million, or $161 per student.

“They are not a poor district, almost $13,000 per student,” he said.

Marty Guilbeau, a Central resident who helped lead a 2006 push in the Legislature to create the Central school system, downplayed criticism that the move would trigger major money problems for the East Baton Rouge Parish system.

“It’s the same smoke and mirrors that took place a few years ago with Central and a few years before that with Zachary and Baker,” Guilbeau said, a reference to criticism of the Zachary and Baker school districts.

He said Central did not have a detailed budget planned in advance but knew that, with 69 other school districts statewide, “another school system can do it too.”

But Laura Fernandez, the mother of three children in Baton Rouge public schools, said she has asked backers of the new district four times for a budget without success.

“I don’t think this is something we should be voting on without this information,” she said.

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.

It would include Parkview Oaks, Jefferson Terrace, Westminster, Cedarcrest, Wedgewood, Shenandoah and Woodlawn elementary schools; Southeast and Woodlawn middle schools and Woodlawn High School.

The bill that won committee approval requires majority approval in the House, which is 53 votes in the 105-member chamber.

The other measure requires a two-thirds majority, or 70 votes.

The session ends June 6.

If the plan wins final legislative approval it would require majority approval from voters statewide and the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.