EBR’s Movement to Create Independent School Districts: 30 Years in the Making

By Woody Jenkins, Editor, St. George Leader – Baton Rouge

By the early 1990’s, I had represented Baton Rouge as a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives for 20 years, most of that time as a member of the House Education Committee. My colleague, Sen. Mike Cross, had served as mayor of the City of Baker before being elected to the State Senate.  We represented nearby districts.

Both Sen. Cross and I were deeply concerned about the education our students in East Baton Rouge Parish were receiving. We met many times and did a lot of research and brainstorming.  At that time, the parish had more than 110 public schools. Many schools were so neglected that no member of the school board had set foot in them.  The system wasn’t working.

EBR System Was Too Big. As we considered possible solutions to the problem of education in East Baton Rouge Parish, we came to agree on one thing above all others: The East Baton Rouge Parish School System was simply too large to be managed effectively. 

We believed that most people want to live in a neighborhood with a great public school their children can safely walk to.  Great neighborhood schools were our goal. 

Texas Provided the Model. We looked about the nation and soon found a model — Texas — which has 1,200 local independent school districts. Typically, each district represents a community whether rural, urban, or suburban with one high school, two middle schools, and a handful of elementary schools.  Each district also has its own school board, answerable to the people of the community.

Independent School Districts for East Baton Rouge Parish.  We envisioned a plan that would create at least seven community school districts in East Baton Rouge Parish.  We could see people in Baker, Zachary, Central, Woodlawn, South Baton Rouge, Mid-City, and the Istrouma area wanting their own independent school systems.

We discussed the possibility of directing tax collections from the industrial areas of the parish and the major malls into a parishwide fund to provide a base of revenue for each of the seven districts.

The plan had to start somewhere, and Sen. Cross was especially concerned about the need to save the public schools in his hometown of Baker, LA.  We researched how we could create independent school districts like those in Texas.

School Systems Were Locked into State Constitution.  At that time, the Louisiana Constitution provided that there would be 64 public school systems in the state — one for each parish — plus city school systems in Monroe and Bogalusa, which were created in the early 1900’s.  To create a new school system would take a constitutional amendment.  No new school system had been created in nearly 90 years.

The situation was complicated by the fact that East Baton Rouge Parish was still under a desegregation order from the federal courts.  As a result, district lines and attendance zones could not be changed.  Nothing we did legislatively would go into effect until after the desegregation order was lifted at some unknown time in the future.

Creating a new school system was viewed by most at the Capitol as a practical impossibility.

With those hurdles in mind, Sen. Cross and I nevertheless introduced a constitutional amendment to create the Baker Community School System.  What was there to lose?

Obstacles Were Enormous! We had to pass a constitutional amendment through the Senate committee, get a two-thirds’ vote of the Senate, pass it through the House committee, and get a two-thirds’ vote on the House floor.  

After all of that, the proposed amendment had to appear on the election ballot statewide.  We had to mount a statewide campaign to try to get a majority of voters to vote yes.  Even more daunting, we had to convince the voters in East Baton Rouge Parish to approve carving Baker out the EBR school system.  Finally, we had to get the voters of the City of Baker to approve a new school system.  

The ‘Impossible’ Happened.  To our great surprise and the surprise of many others, we were able to overcome all of these barriers.  The legislature and the people approved the new Baker school system!

Then we began the wait. We had to wait from passage of the legislation in 1995 until the federal desegregation order was finally dissolved. Then and only then would the Baker School System be allowed to begin operations. In 2001, the desegregation was finally lifted, and the Baker School System began operation shortly thereafter.  

Baker Had Become a Different Place. Unfortunately, Baker was no longer the place it was when Sen. Cross and I began our quest.  Faced with poor public schools, countless families had left Baker as had much of the business community. The city that Sen. Mike Cross had hoped to preserve was now a different place.  The new Baker school system struggled. Yet, Baker was significant because it proved new community school systems could be created.

The fight to create new independent school districts was not put on pause in 1995 while we waited for the desegregation order to be lifted.

Second Independent School District Created in Zachary.  By the late 1990’s, many of us in the House began a movement to pass a constitutional amendment to create the Zachary Community School System.  Rep. John Travis represented Zachary and agreed to author the bill.  This proposal faced the same obstacles that Baker had.  Nevertheless, we were able to pass it through the legislature and statewide in 1999.

By the time the desegregation order was lifted in 2001, unlike Baker, Zachary was still a healthy, robust community.

Under the leadership of Supt. Warren Drake, the Zachary Community School System officially began July 1, 2003.  Progress came quickly.  Within months, the new system was getting attention statewide.

Zachary Zoomed to No. 1. In 2004, students in the Zachary school system scored No. 1 in the state on the LEAP test.  Some people said it was a fluke.  In any case, it didn’t count because a school system has to take the LEAP tests at least two years in row in order for its schools to be rated statewide.

But in 2005, Zachary again blew the top off the LEAP tests and claimed its position as the No. 1 school system in the state, a position it held for at least the next 10 years.  Zachary still vies for first place almost every year.

Zachary Is Highly Diverse. Zachary’s achievement was especially noteworthy because the population of the school system has been and remains roughly 50-50 black and white.  It is for all practical purposes the most “diverse” school system in the state.

In 2004, the movement to incorporate the City of Central got underway.  The chief reason given by organizers was so that Central could eventually have its own community school system.

Central was incorporated in 2005, and in 2006 Sen. Bodi White and Rep. Donald Ray Kennard introduced a constitutional amendment to create the Central Community School System.

This proposal too had to overcome all the obstacles that Baker and Zachary had faced with one major exception.  Since the desegregation order had been lifted, there was no federal barrier to the creation of a new school system in Central.

Central Went Through Same Process. After approval by the legislature, the constitutional amendment went to the voters in Nov. 2006, and it was overwhelmingly approved statewide, in East Baton Rouge Parish, and in Central.

On July 1, 2007, the Central Community School System came into existence, and the people of Central took over the schools there.

Three years later, Central was rated the No. 2 school system in Louisiana.  Ever since then, Central has been at or near the top of Louisiana’s school systems.

EBR Has Two Top-Performing School Systems. It is fair to say that today, East Baton Rouge Parish has two of the top-performing school systems in the state in Zachary and Central.  This is especially noteworthy since both are blue collar communities.

In 2012, the St. George movement began with a goal of creating a new school system in the southeast part of East Baton Rouge Parish.  Sen. Bodi White was by then representing a Senate district that included both Central and much of current-day St. George.  Sen. White introduced legislation to create the Southeast Community School System.

This effort to start a new school system evolved into the St. George movement which has now been successful in creating the new City of St. George.

So today, the system of independent school districts for East Baton Rouge Parish that Sen. Mike Cross and I envisioned nearly 30 years ago has three districts in place — Baker, Zachary, and Central.

Zachary and Central prove St. George could rapidly become one of the best school districts in the state, if not the best.

What would it take to create a community school district for St. George?  That is the question that many St. George residents are asking today.

Legally speaking, I see at least three different paths to a new school system for the Southeast:

1 – Amending the Louisiana 

Constitution to create the St. George Community School System. This is the traditional approach.  It would require a two-thirds’ vote of the House and Senate and approval by the voters of the constitutional amendment statewide, in East Baton Rouge Parish, and in St. George.

2 – Amending the Louisiana Constitution to allow the legislature to create new school districts by statute. Creation of new school districts would still require a vote in East Baton Rouge Parish and in St. George. This was the approach of SB6 by Rep. Emily Chenevert in the recent legislative session.

3 – Expanding the boundaries of the Central Community School System to include the City 

of St. George.  The boundaries of the Central school system are established by law, not by the Louisiana Constitution.  Those boundaries can be enlarged by act of the legislature without a constitutional amendment.  Central and St. George are contiguous, united by a narrow sliver of the Amite River. Theoretically, the boundaries of the Central School System could be changed to include St. George. This could be the easiest route to become part of a new school district.  The question is, why would Central want to do this? Also, would the new combined system itself be too large and defeat the concept of local community control.

One thing is certain: If the people of St. George truly want their own independent school system, it will take a lot of hard work, wisdom, and determination. Personally, I am eager to see if you can do it!

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