BREAKTHROUGH: Southeast Baton Rouge ISD Bill Clears Senate

Two bills which would establish an independent school district in Southeast Baton Rouge – a district bordered by I-12 to the north, I-10 to the west and the Livingston and Ascension parish lines to the east and south – passed overwhelmingly on the floor of the Senate Tuesday.

The first bill, SB 73 by Sen. Bodi White, needed 26 votes in the Senate for passage since it’s a constitutional amendment. SB 73 met that requirement, scoring a 27-11 triumph (only one Republican, Sen. Jody Amedee of Gonzales, was a nay vote). SB 199, the implementing legislation, also passed with a 25-12 vote.

The bills now go to the House Education Committee, where they’re expected to pass to the House floor. On the House floor they’ll meet a stiff test – last year in a pair of votes in the House the Southeast ISD was four votes short and 10 votes short. Proponents believe they’ve lined up more support this year and can get the two-thirds vote in the House necessary to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Independent school districts in Baton Rouge generally have a good record. Zachary’s schools are the top-performing district in Louisiana, and Central is No. 5. Another ISD in Baker doesn’t perform quite so well; it’s near the bottom of the state rankings. The East Baton Rouge school district those ISD’s have broken away from is No. 55 out of 70 districts.

A poll done by proponents of the Southeast ISD says over 70 percent of the proposed district’s voters approve of the breakaway district. White said that concerns about the new district bankrupting the EBR schools – a specific accusation made by Baton Rouge Democrat Sen. Sharon Broome, are unsupported by facts; in reality, he says, the EBR schools will actually receive $5.5 million more in funding from the Minimum Foundation Program if the Southeast ISD were established.

Broome wasn’t very convincing in advocating against the bills on the Senate floor. “If public education in EBR is broken, we should work to fix it. How can changing district lines improve student performance?” she thundered.

To which the easy answer is that by breaking off part of the district and serving the denizens of the breakaway part with better management and higher standards while creating competition between districts one can easily see improved performance in at least some of the affected areas. Broome isn’t so dense that she doesn’t understand this; her role as water-carrier for the EBR school district prevents an honest admission of that fact, however.

White’s response to Broome was pretty devastating, though; he pointed out that the demographics of Southeast Baton Rouge are reflective of middle income, racially diverse neighborhoods and that the area affected by the ISD doesn’t have a big mall or major industries to drive its tax base. The larger school system, moreover, is a sewer of failure and it’s seen its enrollment plummet from 65,000 to 43,000 students over the years while Livingston and Acension parishes have reaped the benefits of flight from the system.

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