For the third consecutive year, the Louisiana House will decide whether sweeping changes are in store for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
The plan this time, Senate Bill 636, has breezed through the Senate Education Committee, the full Senate and the House Education Committee.
The same thing happened in 2013 and 2012 when state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, tried to carve out a new district in southeast Baton Rouge.
Those plans also zipped through the Legislature until they were killed in the House.
Now, White wants to overhaul the school district by giving new authority to school principals, to try to decentralize what critics call a top-heavy Central Office by giving more autonomy to the key barometer of a school’s success — the principal.
“This is an attempt, I repeat an attempt, to try to satisfy people from all over the parish,” he told the House Education Committee earlier this week.
“Not everyone is going to be completely satisfied with anything we do, especially in education,” White said.
Opponents of the bill are more than dissatisfied.
They are angry about the legislation, angry that the Baton Rouge Area Chamber is a key proponent of the plan and angry that East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Metro Council member Chandler Loupe would show up for a public hearing to endorse it.
“I am surprised at some of the things I am hearing about this bill,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board after hearing testimony by Moore and Gautreaux.
Just how prickly is the topic?
House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who is expected to handle the bill on the House floor, said his committee spent about 14 hours at multiple hearings discussing White’s bill and a nearly identical one that he sponsored.
Efforts to strike a compromise on the measure triggered an unusual series of private, late-night negotiations at the State Capitol.
State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, a lawyer and a member of the House Education Committee, served as a go-between in the push to find common ground.
No breakthrough materialized, and Broadwater voted for White’s bill when the committee approved it Tuesday on a 10-6 vote.
Opponents of the plan say the legislation is blatantly unconstitutional.
By singling out a single school district in a state with 69, they say, the bill would run afoul of the state constitution’s ban on the Legislature passing local bills.
“If we are going to have a Constitution, we ought to follow it,” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the district.
If White’s bill wins final approval, it will spark a lawsuit, opponents say, just as high-profile public school overhaul bills passed in 2012 sparked lawsuits over vouchers, tenure and other issues.
“It is clearly in the Constitution that we have this power, we as a body have this power to change laws, to make laws, affecting local school boards,” he said.
Opponents also note that the plan has triggered criticism from 20 or more school principals, who say they do not want more autonomy if that means they are saddled with new transportation, food service and other duties.
“First of all, I would say listen to your principals,” said Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system.
White counters that his bill is a reflection of deep dissatisfaction in his district with the quality of Baton Rouge public schools, including inordinate levels of violence at Mayfair Elementary School, Southeast Middle School and Woodlawn High School.
People fed up with schools here have helped trigger explosive growth in Ascension and Livingston parishes, he said.
The legislative session end June 2.
White’s bill may get its first vote in the state House next week.
The key proposals in 2013 and 2012 to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge needed 70 votes. They did not achieve that.
This one needs 53.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.