St. John School Board debate over redistricting turns ugly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 18, 2014

By Monique Roth

EDGARD – Tempers flared and microphones weren’t needed to hear the arguments that arose at the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board Meeting on Thursday. The behavior stemmed from board member Gerald Keller’s proposal seeking approval to advertise for new vendors to prepare the School Board Redistricting Plan.

The arguments and tantrums of the board members elicited several stunned looks and mumbles from audience members who seemed surprised to see the board members conduct themselves in a way normally reserved for the school-aged children that they represent.

Board members argued, yelled, spoke out of turn and over each other in attempts to voice their opinions.

A redistricting plan must be in place before August, when qualification deadlines occur for interested members of the community to run for School Board office in November.  

Drama surrounding the redistricting plan started last year when the Secretary of State’s Office contacted the board to say that it was “unable to implement the (current redistricting) plan as submitted.”

Cedric Floyd, a redistricting associate of Data Center LLC who submitted the proposed plan, told board members on Thursday night that he would fix the previously submitted plan for free and that there were legal loopholes to go through to get the plan approved but that he was absolutely confident that he could get it passed.

Floyd told that board to “cool your heels through February, and it’ll all be resolved.”

The board awarded a contract for redistricting services to Data Center LLC last year, but the decision was not without debate even then.

At the time, board member Russ Wise mentioned that Floyd had been involved in a lawsuit filed against the School Board the last time redistricting occurred, an incident Wise said cost the district $10,000. He also said the company’s references had not been checked and that Data Center LLC had changed its bid to just below that of South Central Planning just four minutes before the proposal window closed.

The board still went with Floyd for the plan.

Keller said that Floyd had given them a plan not approved by the state and that it was time to move on in the process.

Keller’s insistence on a new plan being drafter enraged board member Rodney Nicholas.

“Dr. Keller wants to dilute African-American voting,” Nicholas said.

Nicolas continued to yell into his microphone, which at that point wasn’t needed, and said the school board issue and Keller’s resistance to Floyd’s plan reminded him of the tribulations that African Americans faced in several incidents related to the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

Nicolas’ rant received mixed reviews from audience members, but that did not stop him from later launching into a debate with Wise regarding what action the board should take. At one point Nicholas moved Wise’s microphone so that he couldn’t be heard.

A substitute motion was proposed by board member Albert Burl, III that would essentially give Floyd more time to try to get his plan passed instead of advertising for new vendors.

In the end, the substitute motion by Burl failed, and the original motion by Keller passed.

Keller then told the board that nothing was stopping Floyd from answering the new advertisement for vendors.

The meeting opened on a more positive note when All South Engineer Project Manager Cindy Janecke gave an update on progress in the rebuilding of East. St. John High School.

Janecke reported to the board that final paperwork was submitted to FEMA earlier in the day and that after FEMA approval, which has a Feb. 20 deadline, “then we’re good to roll.”

Janecke explained that rather than a radical renovation, ESJHS would be receiving extensive repairs. Included in those repair would be measures to make the buildings more compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

A levee will also be placed around the circumference of the school property. Janecke said that the levels of the levee would not exceed the height of Airline Highway.

Wise asked when students of the high school might be back in the buildings, and Janecke said that barring any major complications, the school should reopen in the fall of 2015.