The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s controversial last-minute shift from an 11-member board to one with 9 members has scrambled the election map less than four weeks before qualifying for elections this fall and prompted an almost certain legal fight.
The new plan, adopted Thursday, hurts most directly two politicians: Jerry Arbour, who’s currently on the board; and W.T. Winfield, a former board member seeking to rejoin the body.
Arbour and Winfield were close allies when they served on the board and both were targeted for ouster during the 2010 School Board elections. Arbour won re-election that year by just 100 votes to his District 9 seat, while Winfield lost to LSU professor Craig Freeman. Arbour and Winfield both were heavily outspent by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and a group underwritten by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby.
The new map alters the districts Arbour and Winfield are running in this year, significantly affecting their chances.
The new nine-member plan was approved by a 6-5 margin Thursday after hours of rancorous debate. By contrast, the 11-member plan that would have gone into effect was unanimously approved 20 months earlier in November 2012 and generated little debate.
No representative of the BRAC, a strong supporter of reducing the board size, spoke Thursday night. On Friday morning, the business group congratulated the board for the vote.
“This is a significant step toward creating more effective governance of the school system, which will help produce improvement and positive results in student achievement,” said Michael DiResto, senior vice president of economic competitiveness for BRAC.
The chamber this past spring sought unsuccessful legislation to force such a reduction.
The plan approved Thursday is known as “Freeman 9 Member 7” after the board member who requested it. It keeps Arbour in a newly drawn District 9 but pits him against School Board President David Tatman.
Tatman actually lives closer geographically to Connie Bernard, who plans to run as the only incumbent in the newly drawn District 8. Tatman was the only board member who expressed a willingness to run against another incumbent.
“I’m in there with an incumbent,” boasted Tatman on Thursday. “No incumbency protection there.”
Arbour said he’s not sure he will run again for School Board, saying he’s also considering another attempt at justice of the peace and district court judge, positions he’s sought unsuccessfully in the past.
He said he’d have the advantage if he decides to run for reelection because most of the district will be new territory for Tatman.
“David Tatman was put into my district. I wasn’t put into his district,” Arbour said.
The new District 5 is perhaps the most controversial.
Because Freeman is not planning to run for re-election, the district has only one incumbent, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, Freeman’s 2010 opponent.
Winfield now lives just outside of that district. His Precinct 1-10, near Capitol High School, is now the southernmost precinct in the newly drawn District 3, which stretches north to Baker and includes incumbent and Scotlandville resident Kenyetta Nelson-Smith.
Winfield has been campaigning for months, under the assumption he would be running for District 6.
Now, the owner of an engineering firm says he doesn’t know if he’s running at all.
“I will not run against Dr. Nelson-Smith,” Winfield said. “The north end of the parish needs her to help with our public school system.”
Winfield, however, said he may still run, but he’s not sure where. He said his attorneys are trying to see whether this last-minute change would make him eligible to run in any of the other eight districts. If he is allowed to run somewhere else, and he won, Winfield said, he’d be willing to move.
“I’ve stayed in one place for a long time, but it might be time for me to move,” he said.
Thursday’s vote also means that all candidates will forgo the chance to qualify by “nomination,” meaning they get a significant discount if they can get at least 200 voters to sign a petition for their candidacy. The deadline to submit such nominations was Thursday.
Winfield said he had those signatures, but he said he went to the parish Registrar of Voters Office on Thursday and his signatures were rejected.
Several speakers Thursday said that issue is grounds for a court challenge.
Another likely legal issue is how the new District 5, located in Mid-City, is drawn.
It is one of four majority-black districts — five are majority-white — but it is barely so, with 55 percent black residents and 42 percent white. In the 11-member plan approved in November 2012, that area, District 6 under that plan, had almost 59 percent black residents.
State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who represents that area, said that when she was on the School Board she worked to keep the district close to 60 percent black, a super-majority that makes it more likely to be represented by a black resident.
Arbour said yet another challenge might spring from a mix-up by The Advocate, which printed one of the five proposed maps twice in its legal notices. The unprinted map, Tatman 7 Member, was rejected by the board, but Arbour said he thinks the legal notice error still could prove enough to win a court challenge.
Alfreda Tillman Bester, legal counsel for the Louisiana NAACP, said Friday she’s still determining what issues to raise in its promised challenge, but she’ll be filing something in federal court in a matter of days.
“We’re going to ask the court to not allow the plan that was passed last night to go forward,” Bester said.
She said she’s going to ask the court to order the School Board to revert to the 11-member plan, which was reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, in 2013 removed the requirement that Louisiana election districts must first gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department.
Michael Li, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said many districts around the country are taking advantage of the change by adopting plans that were either previously rejected or might have been challenged by the Justice Department.
He said the Justice Department has targeted a few places, including the Texas Legislature, but is not intervening in local jurisdictions.
“Now, there’s no police officer who is looking at it,” Li said. “It puts the burden on minority groups to go find the lawyers and the money to go out and block them, and that’s not an easy task.”