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Politics, practicality prevent Caddo school district breakup

As if the legislative process did not prove daunting enough last session, more evidence has come to show why the idea of breakaway schools districts will be a hard sell in the future for any district in the state, but particularly Caddo Parish.

The continuing plunge of the Caddo Parish School District towards financial – whittling a $40 million reserve to $5 million in just three years that only stayed static under the current budget – and academic – nearly half of its schools are rated as failing or threaten to become so soon – disasters, has created talk of dissident geographies seceding to form their own districts. But if the procedures to do that aren’t daunting enough, the politics and history and practical matters are such to make this possibility the longest of shots to hit home.

Creating a new school district out of another takes two simultaneous steps. The Legislature must pass a law defining the new district and its governance structure while the state Constitution must be amended to carve in the new district granting it powers of any school district absent any special acts.

As background, 61 of Louisiana’s school districts are coterminous with parish boundaries. Washington Parish has the Bogalusa City School District and the remainder of the parish in its own, Ouachita has the Monroe City School District and the remainder of the parish in its, and East Baton Rouge is fragmented into the Baker City School District, Central Community School System, and Zachary Community Schools with Baton Rouge and the remainder of the parish in the East Baton Rouge School District.

This information already points out difficulties for the notion that a handful of schools and/or neighborhoods should become their own districts. First, every school district historically has been built around another governing authority, all cities, Second, no city ever has had multiple school districts within it (unless counting membership in the state-run Recovery School District). Thus, there is no precedent for splitting one or more areas of Shreveport off into their own districts or in having them join with unincorporated areas. Third, the smallest non-parish district in the state, Bogalusa’s, covers almost 13,000 people. Building a district around cities in Caddo Parish, even those sharing boundaries, cannot create a district even half that size when the largest municipality has 3,671 people (Vivian).

Thus left as the only real option for division is to do like Ouachita and Monroe, split the central city out and leave the rest of the parish as another district. If replicated, that would leave a Shreveport district of population 199,311, and the other with 55,658. Some dissident elements live in the unincorporated areas surrounding Shreveport’s south and might find this arrangement at first glance appealing. But the politics of the matter in historical context combined with the practicality they might find discouraging.

Historically, legislative deference is given to the House members from the affected area: if they wish it, most of the remainder of the House and Senate will go along with it (except for all the other in the rest of the current district, who always object). While state Rep. Richie Burford represents a small part of the parish outside the city, it only comprises a small part of his rural district most of which lies to the south, and also while state Rep. Alan Seabaugh represents another chunk, almost all of his district lies in Shreveport. Only state Rep. Jim Morris represents a large area that would split off – however, not the higher-populated southern unincorporated areas – so he would have to file the bill and back it all the way.

But supposing these three favor it, assuring legislative passage, then a statewide vote would have to approve. That seems likely, as historically votes in other parts of the state defer to what is perceived as the desire of that area demonstrated by the bill passage to propose the amendment (and the other bill remains contingent on this passage).

Yet the real problem comes in the nuts and bolts of a division. The remaining larger part (let’s call this the “Shreveport district”) would posses geographically all but six of the old district’s schools – the law will have to divide up property this way. Of those, one is a magnet K-8 school (another two have magnet programs) whose enrollment largely is fueled from students outside of the contemplated district. The other five comprise a K-6 school, three K-8 schools, and a middle/high school, some of whose students would have come from the new Shreveport district. There is a real infrastructure question here, in terms of whether there are appropriately-balanced facilities for students in all grade levels, how attendance zones would look and, the biggest concern of all being, whether having one high school in the northern part of the district can serve efficiently the entire district.

Then there’s the question of quality. On performance indicators and disregarding the magnet school (which scored A-) as the Shreveport district would terminate its involvement with that, all scored a D- (one just fell out of a C) with a most recent average School Performance Score of 80.54 (100 being the benchmark for “average). Caddo’s overall average was 88.5, and this new district would have ranked seventh worst in the state. Is this the future that the elements who want to break away, many of whose children probably attend currently either private schools or schools that would not be part of this new district, want?

While there was talk this past legislative session of trying this, it remained only that. It turned to action regarding a similar effort in Baton Rouge. But even though a law was passed to create a new district there, two bills to send constitutional amendments to the state's voters to allow for this died that would have permitted the breakaway district in East Baton Rouge Parish now and one or more in Shreveport later died precisely because of this inertia.

And that inertia only will grow. With a report out now on the financial aspects of a breakup of East Baton Rouge, the authors noted that initial cost estimates were too low as "legacy costs" of things like retirement pay were predicted to escalate. The same dynamic likely would work in Caddo as well, dampening enthusiasm of legislators to carve up districts.

Political realities are such that any fragmenting of the current Caddo district, if even possible through the political process, would produce two academically and financially troubled districts instead of the one. As such, it makes more sense to address the problems of that one than to think the grass is greener by some kind of fracturing.

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