desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The racial balance of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board could change depending on how its nine members redraw the boundaries of their respective districts over the next few months.

Currently, five members are White and four are Black. Nevertheless, over the past decade, two of those districts have become “toss-ups,” no longer majority Black or White.

One is District 1, located in the Broadmoor area. It is represented by Mark Bellue, who is White. The other is District 5, which includes downtown and Mid City. It is represented by Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who is Black. Between 2010 to 2020, Bellue’s district dropped from 55% to 38% White, while Ware-Jackson’s went from 55% to 49% Black.

That leaves just four majority White and three majority Black districts.

School board members got their first look Friday at how the demographics of their election districts have changed as a result of the 2020 Census. The data will guide the board as it draws up new election lines, which it is required to do after each decennial census.

The board has until June to approve new maps, but is likely to do so much sooner. The maps will be in effect for the fall 2022 school board elections. All nine board members are eligible for re-election.

During a presentation, attorney Dannie Garrett III told the board that it will likely need to maintain at least four majority-minority districts, as it has now. Otherwise, he said, it could face a successful legal challenge that it is diluting minority voting strength, a no-no under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“You cannot reduce the number of majority-minority districts in your plan unless there has just been a radical shift in your population,” said Garrett, whose firm Strategic Demographics LLC was hired last month to lead up the redistricting effort for the school system.

An ongoing population shift from north to south Baton Rouge will force the drawing of new lines across the board. That southward shift has left some districts with too few residents and others with too many. The most populated district, with 53,214 residents, is south Baton Rouge District 7. The least is Scotlandville-centered District 3, which had just 36,152 residents.

The goal is that they all fall within 5% of an average of 43,002. As it stands, five districts are out of whack and two more are barely within that 5% swing. To get within 5%, the underpopulated districts in the north will need to grow and the overpopulated districts in the south will need to shrink.

“Districts will need to shift generally to the southwest,” Garrett explained.

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The East Baton Rouge school system consists of the parish as a whole minus the nearly 70,000 residents of Baker, Central and Zachary. That leaves 387,019 residents overall in the school district, according to the latest census. That’s about 10,000 more than in 2010.

The growth, however, did not come from either its Black or White residents. Between 2010 and 2020, the Black population declined by a few hundred people, while the number of White residents fell by about 17,000.

Rather, the biggest growth came from its multiracial residents. Nearly 20,000 — about 5 percent of the school system — told the U.S. Census that they consider themselves a member of two or more races. That’s about 12 times the number who responded that way in 2010.

Garrett said more and more people identifying as multi-race. In past censuses, it was minimal, but is now a significant part of the mix.

The Hispanic population in East Baton Rouge has grown steadily in recent years, but Garrett did not include Hispanics in his presentation; he said he could provide that information later if desired. He noted that U.S. Census data does not break out Hispanics as a cohesive racial group. Instead, they are grouped together separately as a language minority, he said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board does not have to stick with nine election districts. State law allows it to have as few as five or as many as 15 members.

It used to be bigger.

In 2011, the board reduced its size from 12 to 11 members and then reduced itself again in 2015 to its current nine members.

The shift to nine members was controversial, prompting an unsuccessful legal challenge by the local NAACP. It also was notable because it was not preceded by a census.

And the approved maps did not have to go through the U.S. Justice Department first, a process known as pre-clearance. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that previously required pre-clearance for communities like East Baton Rouge with histories of racial discrimination.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.