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A ruling late Thursday by an appeals court has added fresh confusion to the elections this fall for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal has stayed part of a June 17 ruling by State District Judge Tarvald Smith in which Smith ordered the adoption of a new set of election maps that would expand the parish School Board from nine to 11 members. These are maps the board considered earlier this year but fell short of approving.

The appellate panel, however, preserved another part of Judge Smith’s ruling where he found that the election maps the School Board adopted on May 5 are “null and void” under state law because they split voting precincts when they didn’t have to.

So for the time being neither plan can go into effect. And time may be running short. Qualifying for the Nov. 8 elections is taking place three weeks from now, from July 20-22.

Thursday’s one-paragraph ruling does not end the appeal. The panel is expected to announce dates soon for a hearing to consider in greater detail the School Board’s arguments as well those of the four Baton Rouge residents who brought this suit.

The three judges considering the appeal are Walter Lanier III, Allison Penzato and Jewel "Duke" Welch.

The litigation centers around a 54-year-old state law that limits the ability of elected officials to split voting precincts when drawing election maps. While it’s common to split precincts in Louisiana, this law forbids the practice unless the government entity is unable to avoid such splits.

In its appeal, School Board is seeking to overturn Smith’s ruling entirely and reinstate the board’s preferred nine-member maps. Or failing that, the School Board is urging the court to toss the maps Smith replaced them with and revert to the pre-existing election maps, also with nine members, that the School Board adopted in 2014.

If the school district loses its appeal, 11 parish School Board races will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. That’s consistent with the maps that Smith adopted in lieu of the School Board’s preferred maps. That plan, known as Ware Collins 1-11, doesn’t split precincts. In addition to expanding the size of the board from nine to 11 members, it would likely flip the board’s racial balance to majority-Black.

In his June 17 ruling, Smith gave School Board members the option of coming up with new maps that did not split precincts, though he gave them only four days to make that happen. Rather than comply with that tight timeline, the board opted instead to appeal Smith’s ruling.

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With no new set of maps to consider, Smith ordered that the Ware-Collins 1-11 plan be used instead. Those maps were formally submitted June 22 to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office.

Evan Alvarez, an attorney representing the school system, has urged the appellate court to act quickly, otherwise “the fall elections will be held under a reapportionment plan never adopted by the governing authority of the School Board, nor adopted in compliance with law.”

Plan 22 is the plan the School Board adopted May 5 with five out of nine members voting yes. It would preserve the board's current racial balance of five White and four Black majority districts, though a six White, three Black balance is possible.

That’s because while Plan 22 has four majority-Black districts in terms of all residents and registered voters, it has only three such districts in terms of voting-age population.

Plan 22, however, split a handful of precincts, while Ware-Collins 1-11 did not.

In his June 17 ruling, Judge Smith found that the board’s serious consideration of Ware/Collins “is sufficient proof that (the School Board) was able to meet the requirement of using whole precincts in its reapportionment and redistricting.”

Alvarez has argued to the appellate court that even if it agrees with Smith that Plan 22 is illegal, Smith overstepped his authority by compelling the adoption of Ware-Collins 1-11. Instead, a more sensible remedy, he argued, would have been to revert to the “current board configuration” — the election maps board members adopted in 2014 — “until they can, by a majority vote, adopt a resolution reapportioning themselves.”

State law gives the School Board more time than it ended up using — until Dec. 31, 2023 — to select new election maps that comply with the 2020 U.S. Census. The board opted to move more quickly in order to have new maps in place for the fall 2022 elections.

Alvarez also argues that Ware/Collins can't be used because it was not adopted by a majority of the board and didn't follow the proper legal process. Holding an election with that plan, he wrote, “subjects the School Board to the possibility of additional litigation and calls into question the validity of any elections held pursuant to said plan” as well as “divests the School Board of its discretion under (state law) in terms of how to reapportion itself.”


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