Spring school board elections uncertain

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 6, 2003


RESERVE – April elections for St. John the Baptist Parish School Board members could be more of a Christmas wish than a New Year’s reality, several board members said.

“There are wheels within wheels working right now,” board member Russ Wise said. “I personally think there is a pretty good chance we will not have elections until next fall.”

District lines are redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes noted in the U.S. Census. In 2002, a redistricting plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the School Board was denied preclearance pending the approval of an earlier redistricting plan.

The plan was precleared by a federal judge, not the Justice Department. That, board members said, had Justice Department officials questioning the legality of district lines in the parish.

In August, School Board members watched idly as other elected officials went to qualify for October elections. The School Board was one among almost 20 school boards statewide unable to qualify. But problems for local board members did not stop there.

In the months that followed, questions about the impact of the redistricting plan on minorities were raised by the Justice Department and by members of the community.

“In my district it (the percentage of black voters) was around 64 percent 10 years ago,” District 6 board member Charles Watkins said in August. “It dropped to 54 percent. They (the Justice Department) are concerned with that 10 percent drop.”

In September, the School Board received a letter from the Justice Department asking for additional information to accompany the submitted redistricting plan. Information requested included election returns by voting precinct for all elections with black candidates (1990-present), the number of black voters by district (1985, 1995, and 2002), alternative redistricting plans and more.

Some of that information, Board President Gerald Keller said, was difficult, if not impossible, to find.

“They (School Board consultants) were having trouble getting all the information the Justice Department requested,” Keller said.

An old map, he said, was found to help with some hard-to-solve questions.

“There is still a little paperwork,” Keller said, more optimistic than fellow board members. “I feel we have a pretty good chance they will clear the plans. We are hoping that by the first of the year, everything will clear.”

Board member Charles Watkins, the representative for one of districts that would be most effected by the plan, said Justice Department officials have given no indication as to what they will do about the redistricting plans – or when.

“They were reviewing it and they had some concerns about it,” Watkins said. “But they have not told us whether or not they will approve it. There is no telling.”

According to Watkins, the School Board has redistricting consultants working to prepare for whatever decision the department makes. Meanwhile, for board members, it is a waiting game.

While the possibility that some portions of the redistricting plan could change pending the findings of the Justice Department and School Board consultants, most board members said they do not expect any substantial changes to the plan.

“We are doing both of the above (sending requested materials and working with consultants incase changes have to be made), although I seriously doubt there is any reason to go all the way back to zero,” Wise said.

What the School Board is looking to do is find a “happy medium” that is the “fairest plan possible, as inexpensively as possible.” But hopes for a simple and inexpensive resolution to redistricting are unlikely.

In August, the School Board announced a lawsuit had been filed against it. Legal papers filed on behalf of plaintiffs alleged that the redistricting plans “dilute their (minority) voting strength and deny them civil rights granted under the Constitution and the laws of this country.”

“The people have been denied the right to vote for people on the School Board because of several groups of people,” Wise said. “We are spending the money we need to improve education fighting in court.”

While a few board members have not declared whether or not they intend to run for re-election, most said they will run again.

Matthew Ory, District 10, summing up the ordeal, said, while he did not expect an immediate end to redistricting problems, he would hope for a resolution before April elections.