A diverse group of Baton Rouge residents filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a recent decision by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, claiming the board’s vote to draw new district lines and shrink its number of board members violated several state laws.
The suit, filed two weeks after the School Board narrowly approved a plan that eliminates two board seats by reapportioning districts, says the decision should be nullified for several reasons. The board failed to conduct a “special census” required by law prior to passing the reapportion measure, the lawsuit says, while also allowing a board member to vote who should have been barred by law from doing so.
“There were so many defects in what they did to try and implement this,” said Alfreda Tillman Bester, general counsel for the NAACP’s Louisiana State Conference and the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit. “It really was an effort to skirt the rules.”
Less than a month before candidates sign up to run for the fall election, the School Board in a narrow 6-5 vote on July 24 elected to reduce the seats available from a total of 11 members to a new total of nine. The qualifying period for School Board candidates under the new district lines will run from Aug. 20 to 22, and the parishwide election is scheduled for Nov. 4.
Domoine D. Rutledge, general counsel for the School Board, said Thursday he could not comment on the matter until he had a chance to review the suit, which he had not yet been formally served.
Attempts to reach the board’s president, David Tatman, were unsuccessful. Craig Freeman, the board member named as a defendant in the suit, said he could not comment because of the pending litigation.
Freeman, who has said he will not seek re-election this fall, is one of the primary targets of the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in the 19th Judicial District Court.
The suit says Freeman, who sponsored the measure to shrink the board, should not have been allowed to vote because he had recently moved to Oklahoma and, therefore, was ineligible to continue to serve on the board. Freeman, an attorney and college professor, has said he still legally represents his District 6 and intends to fulfill his duties until his term ends at the end of the year. He also has said he continues to reside in Baton Rouge, where his wife and children live.
Without Freeman’s vote, the reapportionment measure would have failed.
The suit also attacks the timing of the board’s decision, which came the day after the deadline passed for candidates to be nominated by petition. That’s when candidates for public office gather petitions from supporters to get a discount from qualifying fees. The board’s decision essentially nullified any candidates who previously qualified by petition and rendered it impossible for anyone to do so under the new district lines. All candidates must now enter the official qualifying period beginning in late August, which is more costly for the candidates.
The idea of reducing the size of the parish’s School Board was promoted by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, whose members argued it would make the body more efficient. Opponents asserted a smaller board would make it easier for special interests to influence elections.
Mike McClanahan, the president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, is the lead plaintiff in the suit. Other plaintiffs include Noel Hammatt, a former four-term School Board member; Byron Sharper, a former metro councilman; and Merritt E. McDonald, who unsuccessfully ran for a school board seat a few years ago. In addition, Chrishunda Harris, Jeanette L. Harrison, James C. Finney, William J. Glasper Sr. and Russell J. Stokes Jr. are also listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
After the School Board vote, Bester, the civil rights’ group’s attorney, argued the reduction in districts violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by diluting minority voting strength. That issue — which is typically raised in federal court challenges — is not addressed in the suit filed Thursday.
Bester said the plaintiffs are racially and ideologically diverse and that the suit is about more than race.
“I think it has some part to do with race,” Bester said, “but that’s not what we’re alleging in the suit.”
Bester said the litigation is driven simply by the board’s “attempt to silence the voices of the community.”
When asked whether the board’s decision also would be challenged in federal court, Bester said, “nothing is off the table,” adding that she believed the matter would be resolved in state court.
The 11 former districts broke down into six majority white and five majority black districts. The new board that takes office Jan. 1 will have five majority white districts and four majority black districts.
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