SADOW: Bad Performance Makes For Breakaway Governments

Supporters of a new independent school district in southeastern East Baton Rouge Parish figure perhaps the third time is that charm in upping their ante by exploring the possibility of creating a new municipality, which may create desirable ripple effects beyond just that objective.

In 2011, advocates of district creation first tried but failed to get the Legislature to do so. To do this, two things must happen: a law must define the district and its governance structure, and the Constitution must be amended to include it in the Minimum Foundation Program for funding. This year, they got halfway by getting the law passed, but the amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber and then an affirmative vote of the state’s people, didn’t get to a vote in the House after the Senate moved it on.

Some legislators publicly stated they had qualms about doing the unprecedented act of dividing a district built around a single local governing unit. While most local school districts in the state have the same boundaries as parishes, the few that don’t either have boundaries coterminous with municipalities or with parishes minus those districts built around municipalities in that parish. The same issue had arisen in the early 2000s with the desire to create the Central Community School System. After some failed attempts to get the district established, the city of Central was created, and the district passed legislative muster two years later.

If opposing legislators genuinely hold this attitude, then the extra step should be enough to get the district in stasis funded. Municipal creation cuts out opponents of creating either or both a new municipality or district who are outside the proposed district but in the present district, as it requires only a petition of a quarter of registered voters in the area to be incorporated and then a majority of those voting on the question in an election. (The Legislature then passes a law dealing with the transition.) Opponents outside of the district publicly question whether that means a negative financial impact on the remaining, smaller district, but that merely masks two deeper insecurities on their parts.

One is that they know they will lose power and their elites know they will lose privilege. They will have fewer resources and have authority over fewer people. The other is that a new local governmental unit creates competition that can produce a more compelling model that leaves citizens voting with their feet and, additionally concerning schools, their scholarship vouchers. These special interests fear these situations because as citizens and their tax dollars leave their jurisdictions, it exposes the bankruptcy of their governing ideologies and makes them more vulnerable to losing power within those jurisdictions – for some elected officials perhaps because their electoral district essentially will disappear as a result.

And there’s some irony to it all for those some involved in city-parish politics because had they acted differently over the past couple of years, it may never have come to this. Some, like Mayor-President Kip Holden, showed distaste for the breakaway school district by likening it to a kind of racist segregation, when in fact it would create a majority black school district. But if he had used his influence to get the district funded – it has been created despite him – perhaps breakaway opponents now would not be looking to birth their own municipality, which may threaten his own political power in that the disproportionate removal of blacks from city-parish voting rolls if the new city follows the school boundaries might take away support for black Democrats such as himself.

Whether this effort if pursued would succeed in creating a city and/or funding the new district depends upon two things. First, chances are local taxes in aggregate will rise for the new dual jurisdiction, as in Louisiana typically citizens in incorporated areas may see higher millages and often sales taxes, which could discourage petitioners or voters. However, they may be willing to bear these if they feel much more confident that it will spent on their priorities and to provide a much higher level of service.

Also, some legislators who said they would support the amendment if there were a municipality the district was drawn around might have been disingenuous, trying to hide the fact they really oppose it for the same ideological reasons as do local elites. But given that the 2006 vote to amend to fund Central received a four-fifths majority in the House and almost unanimity in the Senate, this may show either this attitude is not widespread or enough holders of it might be cowed sufficiently to garner the two-thirds majorities needed.

If pursued and accomplished, this continues a healthy trend in devolutionary government in East Baton Rouge that perhaps should spread statewide. Perhaps it’s a negative that it must come to this in the first place, that a jurisdiction is so underperforming and elites in charge seem so unwilling to alter their policies to prevent that as to cause secession, but it’s a positive in that citizens are willing to take that step to improve the lives of their families. And the competition presented to Baton Rouge might be what’s needed to improve governance there as well. Going for a new municipality in southeastern East Baton Rouge Parish cannot be a bad thing.



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