Redistricting sparks spat at Tammany School Board - After bickering, remap adopted

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Saturday, September 15, 2012
Author: Jim Derry St. Tammany bureau

Following a rare public exhibit of contention among members of the St. Tammany Parish School Board, a controversial redistricting plan was passed 9-4 with one abstention at the monthly meeting in Covington on Thursday night. 

Arguing the plan didn't integrate enough minority constituents into any district on the west side of the parish, 14th District representative Ray Alfred of Slidell twice tried to circumvent the map's approval. Both times, he was rejected. 

At last week's business affairs committee meeting, Robin Mullett recommended the now-approved plan that will take her district from the east side of the parish and move it closer to Madisonville, which is the fastest-growing area in the district. 

The initial argument against Mullett's proposal by some Slidell members of the board was that it would pit her against a longtime board member in John Lamarque. She stated last week -- and reiterated Thursday -- "it was the right thing to do" for her 9th district, which currently covers northeast portions of the Slidell area toward Pearl River, and the board voted 9-2 to preliminarily approve it. 

On Thursday, the argument shifted and became more focused on racial needs, especially after James Davis, president of the Covington branch of the NAACP, and Frances Dunn, a community activist for the West 30s neighborhood in Covington and former Covington City Council member, pleaded at the meeting for board members to give more thought to redistricting. 

Dunn said the West 30s area needs "a plan that would give assistance to the rapid decline of the educational status of the youth in my area." She added, "Ten years ago, members of this body and former members did us wrong," referring to when the board was forced to change the small district in Covington to include a larger population. That change resulted in the minority rate falling from a majority to 30 percent, and the door was opened for Michael Dirmann to score an overwhelming win over Ronnie Coleman and incumbent Donald Burris in 2002. 

By law, the board must tweak its 15 district boundaries, which does not affect school attendance districts in any way, every 10 years based on the U.S. Census so that each district maintains a population within 5 percent of the average of 15,582. The new census showed the 2nd District, which covers most of Madisonville, is the most overpopulated with 42.5 percent more than the average. 

With roughly 12 percent of the parish being made up of African-Americans and less on the west side, putting together a district of a high non-white population in Covington would be impossible, said Glenn Koepp of Redistricting LLC, who was hired by the School Board earlier this year. In the approved plan, the highest minority population in the west will come in the 3rd District, which covers much of Covington, at 19.3 percent. Alfred's 14th District in Slidell will have the parish's highest overall minority rate at 55.2 percent. 

Despite the pleas, all board members from the western six districts, along with Mary K. Bellisario of Slidell and Willie Jeter of Lacombe, seemed content on moving forward. The debate, however, rolled on for nearly 40 minutes and Alfred made his displeasure clear. 

Twice, he coughed loudly into his microphone while Dirmann praised Mullett for "sacrificing her own district to (accommodate) the growth factor on the west side of the parish." Minutes earlier, Alfred asked the board to consider a different map, and when told by the board's attorney, Harry Pastuszek, that a state law requires a unanimous vote for any change to the agenda during a meeting, he responded by saying that's "just ridiculous" and insisted a roll-call vote be taken despite obvious objections. 

After Alfred ran out of options, a vote was taken. Alfred, along with Slidell-area members Ronnie Panks, Bob Womack and John Lamarque, voted against it. Peggy Selley of Pearl River abstained. As he was last week, Neal Hennegan of Mandeville, was absent. 

After the meeting, Alfred clearly was disappointed, but acknowledged there wasn't anything else he could do. 

"For minorities to have a better chance to (gain a seat on the board), there needs to be a larger percentage of minorities with an opportunity to vote in their district. That's not to say they would vote for a minority candidate, but they at least should have an opportunity to," he said. 

Assuming the plan is approved by the U.S. Justice Department, it won't take effect until 2014, when the term ends for all 15 seats.