School board president prepared to defend against lawsuits after redistricting vote

School board president prepared to defend against lawsuits after redistricting vote
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Education
Friday, July 25, 2014 - 9:37pm

The East Baton Rouge School Board made a big decision to go smaller.

Late Thursday night, members voted to reduce the size of the board from 11 to nine. It is a decision that could impact the school system for years to come, in the classroom and in court.

"This defies logic," stated Alfreda Tillman Bester, General Counsel for the Louisiana Conference of the NAACP. "It absolutely defies logic."

The NAACP was joined by both the Republican Party and Democratic Party in arguing against the school board's decision to eliminate two seats.

"I cannot imagine who these people were representing," Tillman Bester said, "because it was certainly not their constituents and it was not the children of this parish."

"It is my personal opinion and my philosophy that a smaller board would be a more effective board," countered board president David Tatman.

The change comes just four weeks before candidates can qualify for November's election, in which all nine seats will be up for a vote. Both political parties said they thought the change came too close to the deadline, that candidates now have to worry about different district boundaries than they had planned on.

"Sure, if they were running in a calculated way, to run against a particular candidate, sure," Tatman mentioned. "But if they were running because they wanted to serve on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, if they wanted to run to be a member of the school board, then I would think that they would run and what district they would run in wouldn't make a difference, that they would run, put themselves out there, and let the people of East Baton Rouge Parish decide."

The board's 11 current districts were approved by the US Justice Department two years ago. Lots of people fear that reapportionment will invite more scrutiny from the Justice Department, as well as lawsuits from the community.

"We are looking at all available remedies," Tillman Bester said of the NAACP, "and the only one that we have been able to determine as the next recourse is a lawsuit.

"[The school system] already didn't have enough money. And now, they're gonna be wasting, squandering taxpayer money fighting a lawsuit over something they didn't have to do."

"I think that this plan will hold up," Tatman claimed. "I think this plan was well-advertised, I think this plan was well-vetted in the community."

Some critics argued that the reduction in board size would limit the voice of the community, since members would have a harder time properly representing larger districts. Tatman said the districts will closely resemble state House of Representatives districts in size. "And I think that if a person has a problem, that they think they might not be able to represent that large of a district, then they probably shouldn't run," he stated.

Tatman cited other cities that have made similar moves as reasons for optimism.

"My best example of that is, I think, Jefferson Parish," he said. "They have a nine-member board. They have almost the exact population that East Baton Rouge Parish does, but they have a few more kids in their schools. They have about 3,000 more students. And they have almost the same exact number of sites. They have a nine-member board and they're a B district. So it certainly is not a detriment to being a successful district."

Tatman, who said he supported a nine-member board as far back as 2012, claimed reducing the size of the board will speed up the decision-making process, and could save up to $50,000. But even he might not get to find out whether the decision works the way he envisions.

"I think that this is the right thing, and clearly the voters are going to make that determination," he mentioned. "If the voters determine that board members, that this was not a good thing for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, that'll show up in the ballot box."

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