A bill that would trim the East Baton Rouge Parish school board from 11 members to nine narrowly failed Monday in the Louisiana House.
The vote was 51-40 in favor of the measure, two shy of the minimum needed for passage.
State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the legislation, may seek another vote at a later date, especially because his bid fell just short.
Opponents labeled the bill unconstitutional and predicted that if it became law it would spark a costly, needless court fight.
“This bill will be challenged,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and a former board member herself. “There is no doubt about it.”
Honoré initially sought a reduction of the board from 11 to seven.
He successfully sponsored an amendment that changed it from 11 to nine, including two at-large.
Honoré said the smaller board would be more efficient and save the district up to $100,000 per year.
He also disputed criticism that a smaller panel would disenfranchise black voters.
“I’m black,” Honoré told the House. “Do you think I would disenfranchise myself?”
Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who helped lead the opposition, said 27 of the state’s 69 school districts have boards with more than nine members.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said any such change should be initiated by the board itself, which he said happened recently in his House district.
Edwards also said there was widespread disagreement in the Baton Rouge delegation about the merits of the plan.
Opponents pointed out that East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members are considering a reduction of their own.
But House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said the legislation stems in part from the inability of board members to agree on a new makeup.
“There is a stalemate,” Carter said. “That is the reason we have the bill.”
Honoré’s proposal was backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and opposed by leaders of the East Baton Rouge Parish school district.
He told the House that studies show 90 percent of school boards nationwide have between five and nine members and the average is seven.
“The School Board has not accomplished much in the past 20 or 30 years,” Honoré said.
Smith, who served on the panel for 13 years, disputed that comment.
She said her time on the board included the first approval for a school tax in years, the end of the decades-old federal school desegregation case and the construction of numerous school buildings.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, denounced the bill but got an amendment added that would make the measure null and void if the board approved its own redistricting plan before Aug. 1.
That change was approved 43-42.
In another debate on the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, under pressure, delayed floor action on his bill that would overhaul the district by giving principals sweeping new authority.
The proposal, Senate Bill 636, would allow principals to hammer out budgets, recruit and hire personnel and put them under management contracts.
The principals could also be fired for failure to meet performance goals.
Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, pleaded for more time so that she and other critics of the bill could draft amendments and continue behind-the-scenes talks.
“I would hate for us to see this process unravel,” Broome said of negotiations.
White, with some reluctance, went along with her request.
Despite Broome’s request, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, declined to agree to resume debate on the bill on Wednesday.
“You all work things out and come tell me,” Alario said. “We are spending a lot of time on this.”
A nearly identical bill is also subject to closed-door discussions in the House Education Committee.
That proposal, House Bill 1177, is scheduled for a hearing and vote in the committee on Wednesday evening.
Backers said both the House and Senate versions would improve student achievement by giving principals more autonomy.
Opponents contend the changes would burden principals with legal, food service and transportation responsibilities and hurt their ability to aid students.