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EBR School Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson speaks at a 2018 board meeting. 

The firm helping the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board draw new district maps has quit, saying three board members would not sit down with it.

That means the board will have to hire someone else, delaying a process some board members had hoped would be over by January.

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.

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In a letter sent Monday, William Blair, managing member of Baton Rouge-based Strategic Demographics LLC, cited the failure of three board members to sit down with the firm, meetings that Blair described as “invaluable to a successful redistricting.” That made the firm's relationship with the board "untenable," even though it had done a lot of work already, he said.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who has been the most vocal publicly in her criticism of the firm — particularly how it was hired — said she wasn’t expecting Monday’s letter.

“I’m surprised they quit,” Ware-Jackson said.

Ware-Jackson said she has pressed the firm since Mid-September, mostly unsuccessfully, for more information.

“It was nothing unusual and (was) available from the 2020 U.S. Census,” she said.

She said she wanted to see that information before sitting down with thefirm. Even so, she said, she didn’t want it to quit.

“I’m confident they could do the job,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

Board President David Tatman views those information requests differently.

“People were asking for information that was superfluous … I don’t even know how to describe it,” Tatman said.

Tatman said Ware-Jackson, Tramelle Howard, and Dadrius Lanus were the three board members who didn't meet with the firm. He said it was his understanding that Howard and Lanus were in the process of scheduling a meeting with the firm, but it hadn't happened yet.

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Tatman said he’s been happy with Strategic Demographics’ work so far. But he said he’s not surprised it’s withdrawing given friction with certain board members, though he said he’s not spoken with the firm directly about those concerns.

“We were ready to go, but we had board members who weren’t willing to meet with them and others who were willing to meet with them,” Tatman said.

Strategic Demographics has faced a frosty reception from some school board members since Aug. 19, when the board narrowly approved hiring the firm in a 5-3 vote that broke along racial lines — Lanus, who is Black, was absent.

In so doing, the board passed over the two other applicants, both of whose proposals earned higher scores from an in-house committee. Data Center in Kenner, led by former Jefferson Parish School Board member Cedric Floyd, who is Black, was rated highest. Close behind was Geographic Planning & Demographic Services in Duson, led by former Lafayette Parish School Board member Mike Hefner, who is White; Hefner has done demography work before the school system.

In a Sept. 9 discussion on this topic, board member Collins said she was okay with Strategic Demographics and its past work, but she said it was “salt in the wound” for her for the board to pass over a highly rated minority-owned entity such as the Data Center in the way it did.

In his letter, Blair discussed why some board members might not be happy with his firm doing this work.

“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 Garrett have previously “been the subject of such implications” and that they “have worked across racial and party lines with jurisdictions across the state” many times before.

Strategic Demographics' base fee was $30,000, to be paid in two installments. In his letter, Blair waived the cost of an already produced “benchmark report,” meaning the firm is forgoing all that it was owed thus far.

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Strategic Demographics, formerly Redistricting LLC, has drawn up maps for the School Board several times before, most recently in 2014. The firm is also currently handling redistricting work for other local governments across Louisiana, including several school boards.

Tatman, who has pushed for a quick redistricting process, said the school system is already reaching out to two firms who were previously passed over to see if they are still interested in taking on the job in hopes of hiring one of them later this month. If that fails, then the school system will have to seek new proposals, causing more delay, he said.

Tatman had planned a vote for later this month on two possible timelines, one that would wrap up in late December, the other by March 24. Tatman has pressed for a swift process, saying he wants to give people interested in running for School Board next year as much time as possible to size up their potential district — qualifying for the Nov. 8, 2022 election starts July 20.

“If they want to win and, especially if they run against an incumbent, they need to start early,” Tatman said. “I’m definitely not for incumbent protection.”


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