Two firms are in the running to draw new district maps for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to replace the contractor that abruptly quit earlier this week, citing lack of cooperation from three board members.
Reaction from board members on Thursday ranged from confusion to disdain for Strategic Demographics LLC's surprise withdrawal.
“We’ve worked with them before and worked well, so I’m not sure what happened,” board member Dawn Collins said.
Board member Mike Gaudet said he was blindsided by the firm quitting. He said he’d been trying to help it work through issues raised by board members who had yet to meet with the firm.
“It is some of the most unprofessional dealings I’ve ever seen," Gaudet said. "And personally I don’t wish them well. They failed miserably in my opinion."
The board will pick a replacement for Strategic Demographics when it meets again Nov. 18.
The two remaining contenders are Data Center in Kenner, led by former Jefferson Parish School Board member Cedric Floyd, and Geographic Planning & Demographic Services in Duson, led by former Lafayette Parish School Board member Mike Hefner.
They applied earlier this year along with Strategic Demographics, but lost out despite earning higher scores from an in-house committee that reviewed all three proposals.
A majority of the board preferred Strategic Demographics since that firm had drawn up maps for the school district before, has represented many local governments to develop new maps, and it is based in Baton Rouge.
General counsel Gwynn Shamlin said he plans to ask both firms to be present Nov. 18.
“Both firms have reached out to me and are interested in moving forward,” Shamlin said.
Of the two, Data Center earned the most points from a five-member committee, 469 out of a possible 500, and was originally recommended in August to get the job. Geographic Planning came close behind with 465 points and Strategic Demographics trailed with 444.
"We don’t have to start this process over. We have two very capable companies," board member Dadrius Lanus said.
The deadline for the board to approve new maps, which are necessitated by the 2020 U.S. Census, is June 21. But since the board is required by law to publish proposed maps well in advance of approval, the true deadline is May 24.
In a withdrawal letter sent Monday, William Blair, managing member of Strategic Demographics LLC, cited the failure of three board members to sit down with the firm, meetings he described as “invaluable to a successful redistricting.” He said the made the firm's relationship with the board "untenable."
“Perhaps there are lingering resentments surrounding the selection process through which the current contract was issued, a process over which Strategic Demographics had no control,” Blair wrote. “There has also been the implication that Strategic Demographics has purposefully refused to work with some members and is working in a fashion that is a disservice to the board and the public.”
Blair said neither he nor his firm had ever “been the subject of such implications” and that they “have worked across racial and party lines with jurisdictions across the state” many times before.
Board members Lanus, as well Tramelle Howard and Evelyn Ware-Jackson were the three that had yet to meet with the company.
Lanus said he planned to meet with the firm but it just hadn’t yet been scheduled.
Ware-Jackson said she’d requested information from the firm, starting in late September, but received only a bit what she asked for. She said she'll want same from the replacement firm.
“I knew that I was not prepared to look at maps without that information,” Ware-Jackson said.
Howard said he also was interested in seeing more information.
“You have to be right and have the right information,” he said.
Howard, who is Black, said redistricting has in the past been used as a tool to diminish the representation of minority communities and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen this time.
He urged board members to go beyond just making small changes to keep their current districts similar to what they have been, saying he could “care less” who sits in his current seat.
“It should be about how we as a collective put the power back in the hands of the people,” Howard said.