19 April 2006

Committee action, Apr. 19: HB 815

Rep. Bodi White’s HB 815 would create Louisiana’s 69th school district, Central, Louisiana’s newest city. Indeed, the main rationale for the city’s creation was the have a separate school system from East Baton Rouge’s. In front of the House Education Committee, he and others argued the public did not trust the EBR system, scores were heading down, and students were heading to private schools and other parishes. Creating a Central district they argued would turn this around. White conceded this would cost money, but that they would be worth increasing the quality of education. In fact, smaller schools systems, on a per student basis, they argued would cost less.

Rep. Lelon Kenney asked if the supporters had any empirical evidence to back their claims. White said he didn’t, but his extensive community involvement gave him confidence in his projections. He thought the district would attract 2,500-3,000, especially with many new homes going up.

Rep. Avon Honey questioned a new system’s ability to fund itself. White argued they would follow the same path as nearby Baker and Zachary, and that the state computed a support figure from the state at about Baker’s level, $6,100 per student. Supporters also pointed out the system had no plans to incur debt. Honey also wanted to them to “address the makeup” of the student body. White didn’t quite know how to answer such a question, other than to say the racial composition would be about 85 percent white.

Honey kept pressing: “What if the percentages don’t meet expectations?” But opponents said that was irrelevant, but did point out that Zachary had seen an increasing percentage of minority students since its inception. Honey brought up the financial aspect again, and White reiterated that the process worked for Zachary’s transition and should work for Central. If Zachary had developed into the highest-performing district in the state, why couldn’t Central?

Rep. Regina Barrow also doubted the bill. She said the continued division of the existing district would be creating duplication of services and might be wasteful. White pointed out many larger metropolitan areas had many school districts and performed education well, and that as long as financial numbers showed the new system and the old did not financially suffer, decentralization was beneficial.

Rep. Mike Powell asked about impact of falling achievement, noting that East Baton Rouge was relatively the state’s worst in improvement. White said he knew of many cases that when students we rezoned away from the Central area and left for private schools, and thought they would return with a Central district.

Charlotte Placide, superintendent of EBR schools, opposed. She said fixed costs would not go down much as a result of this move, so per pupil costs would become more expensive. In particular, retiree costs she said should be passed along to the new district. She defended having a fund surplus and should not be penalized for that and said they are working on improving scores. She claimed students were returning to the district from private schools.

Noel Hammatt, vice president of the EBR school board, said the bill would disproportionately increase the proportion of students drawing on greater resources. He also said it would leave a “more segregated” system. He objected to “separating out” better performing students. It may be too big, but said smaller was not better when factoring race in income statistics, he argued. “Balkanization” of school was not the long-term answer, by “creaming” better, less costly, students from some districts. He also said this threatened the system’s escape from the consent decree because of segregation.

EBR School Board president Pat Smith said the district could not support creating a district that would be “90 percent white.” She promised the district would do a better job. She also said it would be unfair for debts incurred within the breakaway district not be transferred to it. “Reconsider the entire process,” she asked.

Other opponents were less diplomatic. One of those involved in the lawsuit questioning Central’s incorporation said he could never support a move whose sole purpose was to “segregate,” that it was all about race, accusing supporters of having bad attitudes and being disingenuous, because Central had no history as a “real” city. Another said it would be “scary” to have students return from private schools because Central would not be diverse enough, calling it “resegregation,” and made veiled threats about continuing litigation. He also pointed out Zachary maintained much more racial diversity when it separated. Another said to support the measure was support for resegregation.

Rep. Monica Walker couldn’t understand why when Baker, then about half minority, made the same arguments as Central yet was not accused of having racial motives while Central’s supporters were, a question that essentially went unanswered. Walker could not get Placide to change her opposition if retiree costs were shifted to Central.

Rep. A.G. Crowe pointed out that Baker now had a greater percentage of blacks, so he didn’t see why the bill would have any pernicious effect in terms of segregation. The implication that black families were moving to Baker because of its having a separate school system seemed to go over Placide’s head, who rambled on about attendance zones. Hammatt answered one question by saying the bill let “blessed” people leave and costs will not go down because “we’ll keep the same number of teachers.”

Powell pointed out that the Central area had lost 23 percent of its students, 50 percent of its families were sending children to private schools, and the area had a 23-point decline in test scores. “Schools are in decline, scores are going down … we need to keep emotions down and look at the data … we need to be concerned about the children. I’ve heard enough rhetoric about race … I think the discussion needs to be about the children, not the motives of adults,” he said, drawing consternated noises from the witnesses.

Rep. Don Trahan said he was concerned why he had seen such an academic decline in EBR, where other school systems like Caddo and Lafayette with similar demographics had not experienced that, implying leadership might be at fault. Rep. Hollis Downs made that complaint more specific and also touted Lincoln Parish schools, saying they were racially diverse, with many at-risk children, yet it was a higher-performing district. Hammatt argued that breaking statistics down further would show EBR has greater challenges.

White closed by pointing out Central followed the Constitution in its separation, and that people were voting with their feet in terms of quality of education and of life, and one of the newly elected Central officials testified as such. Resegregation, he pointed out meant that government, not families, would be choosing where to live.

Rep. Tank Powell moved to report favorably, but Honey made a motion to defer. The latter failed 2-12. Powell’s passed by the 12-2 margin; in both cases, Honey and Rep. Austin Badon were the pair (Barrow was absent).

THURSDAY: HB 1136 is scheduled to be heard in the House Insurance Committee.

No comments: