The legislative fight over creating a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge stirred passionate arguments in a session already marked by bitter battles over public education.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, the leader of the effort, momentarily lashed out after the plan was killed in the Louisiana House.
“They better wake up and realize that parents have had enough,” White said, a reference to leaders of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, who fought the plan, and other troubled systems around the state.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and unofficial leader of opposition forces, blasted what she saw as racially-tinged blog postings by some backers of the new district.
Opponents said the push was driven in part by efforts to get away from poor, black students.
Smith also was incensed by some of the closing comments by state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge and House handler of the key bill.
“Another lie, another lie,” she said from her House desk.
Smith later apologized for the slight break in legislative decorum, but it was far from the only one in the contentious debate.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s package of sweeping changes in public schools sparked some pitched, last-night verbal fights over how to repair Louisiana’s troubled public school system.
However, the Baton Rouge battle of what normally would be a purely local spat was not far behind.
The fact that the issue aroused strong feelings is no surprise.
Few mothers and fathers are willing to wait five, 10 or 20 years to fix schools when their child is about to enter school.
Nearly 20 percent of students in Louisiana attend private schools, which is one of the highest rates in the nation.
Under White’s plan, 10 public schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system would have moved to the newly-created Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District.
The proposed district would have extended southeast from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.
Backers said that, first and foremost, the failure of East Baton Rouge Parish public schools cried out for change.
The district has a “D” rating from the state.
State Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, told the House that he has lived in the affected district for more that two decades.
Like lots of families, Greene has opted to put his children in private schools.
“There are plenty of parents who don’t have that opportunity,” he noted.
Opponents countered that another area breakaway district — it would be the fourth of its kind — would be the death knell of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
“We think it is a really bad idea to allow collections of neighborhoods to form their own district,” said Belinda Davis, the mother of two children who attend a magnet school in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“We have never created a school district like this in the state of Louisiana,” Davis said.
In the end the issue came down to math.
The two-bill package breezed through the Senate.
Yet one of the proposals, Senate Bill 299, was a proposed constitutional amendment that required two-thirds support, which in the House is 70 votes.
Republicans backed the plan, and Democrats overwhelmingly opposed it.
The GOP enjoys a 58-45 edge in the House, with two others lacking any political affiliation.
White’s plan got 66 votes on the first tally, then dropped to 61 on the second and final try.
Opponents promised to work with disenchanted parents.
However, the whole debate was hardly a ringing endorsement for the East Baton Rouge school system.
Will Sentell covers public education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com.