Breakaway EBR school district vote

A bid to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge suffered a potentially fatal blow Monday when backers dropped plans to push for a vote on the key bill.

“It is a clear indication that they don’t have the votes,” said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge and an opponent of the new school system.

Backers said the overhaul could still win final approval.

But now the lack of any tally on Monday means the already difficult path to passage will be even more daunting in the final three days of the session.

Supporters already had to line up two-thirds support in the House — 70 votes — to pass the constitutional amendment, which is Senate Bill 73.

Now they will have to also get two-thirds support in both chambers to even debate the proposal because of legislative rules that apply at the end of the session, which ends on Thursday.

“I don’t believe they have the votes,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and, like James, a leading foe of the overhaul.

The two-bill package would move 10 elementary, middle and high schools from the East Baton Parish School District to a new one called the Southeast Community School System.

Advocates of the change contend that an overwhelming majority of parents in the proposed school system back change, mostly because of complaints about academic performance and other problems in the East Baton Rouge Parish district.

Opponents say another breakaway district — it would be the fourth of its kind — would saddle the current district with financial problems, and leave behind a system largely filled with students from poor families.

Despite the delay sponsors insisted they are not giving up.

“Absolutely not, not by any stretch,” said state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the measure.

Ponti downplayed the need to get two-thirds support to debate the ballot measure by noting that backers already had to round up at least 70 votes for passage.

“We are still working it and waiting for a full House,” he said, meaning a time when the chamber has close to all 105 members present and voting to boost chances for getting 70.

But opponents were clearly energized by the lack of any vote on Monday, and stopped just short of calling the package finished for the session.

“That is a very steep hill to climb,” James noted. “Seventy votes on any issue this session has been a tough vote to get.”

The other proposal in the package — it is Senate Bill 199 — has won final legislative approval.

It passed the House last week 57-36, which is 13 votes short of what is needed for Senate Bill 73, which is the ballot proposal.

Earlier in the day Ponti passed up a chance to take up the measure, which was seen as a bid to buy time while trying to line up support.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and chief sponsor of the package, entered the House around mid-afternoon and conferred with Ponti and state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge and another key backer of the new school district.

“I didn’t have 70 here on the floor at one time,” White said later.

“I have been watching bllls all day here,” White said. “I don’t know if I would run anything that took two thirds today.”

Opponents had a different view.

“If they had the votes, they would have brought the bill today.” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

“That they did not speaks volumes,” Rutledge said.

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

Any package that wins final legislative support would also have to win majority approval statewide and in East Baton Rouge Parish to take effect.

The two-bill package has already passed the Senate.

A similar plan cleared the Senate last year before it failed in the House when supporters were unable to get 70 votes for the constitutional amendment.