Redistricting à la Rorschach
New school board lines follow racial boundaries mighty closely
By Donald Hodge Jr.Posted Jan 26, 2011
NEWS AND ANALYSIS
Many dangerous reptiles can be found in Louisiana and in politics. In the bayou, water moccasins and alligators abound; in politics, the sting of the Gerrymander can make the difference between a thriving and innovative democracy…and the total stagnation of an area.
Last year the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board redistricted the (then) twelve existing districts down to eleven in preparation for the fall 2010 elections. The change came as a result of the secession of the community of Central from the governance of East Baton Rouge Parish.
The eleven redrawn districts formed a racially homogenous electorate, with five districts having a black population ranging from 64 percent to 92 percent and six districts having a white population ranging from 65 percent to 89 percent. This racial breakdown resulted in the election of six white Republicans and five black Democrats.
The district lines were drawn by Redistricting, LLC, owned and operated by Glenn Koepp, and were approved by the United States Department of Justice.
“We start with the constitutionally-mandated ‘one person, one vote’ and work from there,” said Koepp. “Second thing is the Voting Rights Act, which has two provisions we must adhere to – Section 2 and Section 5,” he explained.
“Section 2 says you can’t discriminate, and Section 5 is what affects certain jurisdictions, such as East Baton Rouge. The Justice Department looks at whether you have retrogressed to see if you have less minority districts than when you started,” Koepp said.
The eleven districts formed out of the redistricting show some irregularly drawn district lines in an attempt to guarantee the election of a racially-balanced school board. Dr. Kevin Mulcahy, Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Louisiana State University, explained that this process is commonly referred to as “gerrymandering.”
“When districts are manipulated to achieve a certain result based on political party affiliation, race or other criteria, it is a gerrymandered district,” he said. “Instead of using uniform geographic standards, policy makers draw lines which leverage a certain political advantage to one group over another,” he continued. “In Baton Rouge, we see clear lines drawn based solely on race, which isn’t helpful; it’s a political form of segregation,” said Mulcahy.
The most conspicuously gerrymandered district dr is District 5, which weaves its way from the intersection of Perkins Road and Essen Lane all the way to the intersection of Scenic Highway and Evangeline Street.
Newly-elected District 5 School Board Member, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who was not part of the redistricting process, said she represents a diverse district.
“We have a pretty good bit of diversity in District 5,” she said. “I really can’t complain about the way my district is drawn.”
District 5 as drawn is 75-percent black. So is Ware-Jackson.
“This could be a result of the so-called white flight. People left Mid City and went out to other areas. Maybe they just don’t like the way the system is run,” she said.
When asked if she thought the District she represents was a result of gerrymandering, she said, “Quite honestly, I don’t know what the definition of gerrymandering is.” Of her election victory she said, “I couldn’t say my election was won based just on race.”
Another dividing line for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is unique in the state: no other parish in Louisiana has four separate public school systems. Rather, each parish has one school board to govern the entire parish.
Beginning in 2002, an education exodus began in East Baton Rouge, with Zachary forming its own district. Followed by Baker in 2003 and Central in 2007, only the City of Baton Rouge and the unincorporated areas of the parish are now governed by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
“What we see here is the ‘Balkanization’ of East Baton Rouge Parish along racial lines,” said Mulcahy. “You have all these areas that are fragmenting apart from the whole in order to form their own fiefdom of political control, much like all the countries born out of the former Yugoslavia in the Balkans.”
Compounding the issue further is the recent discussion by residents in the unincorporated area of southeastern Baton Rouge about the possible formation of yet another independent school district for the Shenandoah area. This, however, would require both a vote of the Louisiana State Legislature and a statewide vote, just as it did for Baker, Zachary and Central, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Members of both the Central and Zachary school boards explained the reasoning behind the fragmentation of the parish in terms of school autonomy and a focus on community.
J. Scott Swilley, who represents District 2 on the Zachary Community School Board, spoke of the success of the Zachary school district since leaving the governance of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
“We went independent when we were not getting any attention from East Baton Rouge Parish. Our buildings were in horrible shape and the physical plant horrendous. We wanted to control our own destiny,” said Swilley. “Since then, we’ve become the No. 1 school district in the state for the past 6 years, which should say something about our progress after leaving East Baton Rouge.”
The newly formed Central Community School Board has also seen improvement in test scores and enrollments since its independent in 2007. Ruby Foil, who represents District 6 on the Central Community School Board, cited community focus as a big reason for the success.
“The problem we had was many of our children being bused outside of our school district and many others being bused in. You lose some sense of community whenever your schools aren’t the focus of community life,” said Foil. “When your children don’t attend community schools, it affects the community. Central was also not getting their fair share from East Baton Rouge.”
Mulcahy said from a public administration point of view, the way East Baton Rouge Parish is behaving will only lead to failure.
“When you have four school districts in one parish with the main one having a board that is elected based on racially drawn lines, the problems will only continue,” he said. “Until the issue of race is addressed, the problems will persist well into the future.”