School Board OKs new districts - Precinct swap keeps family together

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Author: Andrew Vanacore Staff writer

Members of the Orleans Parish School Board approved new boundaries for their voting districts Tuesday evening, settling a racially tinged debate and meeting a federal deadline to do so with a hurried, last-minute swap of voting precincts that ultimately came down to a personal request by board President Thomas Robichaux that the outlines of his own district include the residence of his adopted son. 

The plan passed 5-0, with members Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade abstaining. 

The Orleans Parish School Board, like other elected bodies, has to rejigger the voting districts from which its members are elected after every federal census, making sure each member represents roughly the same number of constituents while maintaining minority voting strength. 

But since any changes to district lines are likely to have an impact on the chances of one board member or another in the next election, redistricting often brings conflict. And with elections scheduled for November, the School Board proved no exception. Exactly what the stakes are in this case remains uncertain, since the board is still fighting to regain control of most of the city's public schools from the state-run Recovery School District, which took over all but about 17 campuses after Hurricane Katrina. 

Nevertheless, the board ended up having to choose among six maps developed by the consulting firm GCR & Associates. Robichaux, who represents an area in the middle of New Orleans that sprawls from the Upper 9th Ward to Gentilly to Mid-City, backed a plan titled Alternative D, while board member Brett Bonin, whose district includes Lakeview and some adjacent neighborhoods, pushed for Alternative A. 

The crux of the argument came down to minority voting strength. Robichaux and Bonin are both white board members, and Alternative D would have dropped the percentage of voting-age minority voters in Robichaux's district to about 65 percent from 76 percent, while maintaining the number of minority residents in Bonin's district at about 38 percent. 

On the other hand, Alternative A, as amended by the board in December, would hold minority voting strength in Robichaux's district at about 74 percent while dropping it in Bonin's district from about 38 percent to 33 percent. 

Meanwhile, Nick Varrecchio, a lawyer hired by district Superintendent Darryl Kilbert to give advice on the process, warned that Alternative A may not pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviews redistricting plans to make sure they comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

The law requires elected bodies to avoid watering down minority voting power, and Varrecchio told the board that plan A might be rejected because it causes a slight drop in the percentage of voting-age minorities in the 4th District, represented by board Vice President Lourdes Moran. While the difference was small -- less than a single percentage point -- he argued that it would set off a red flag because the district is split almost evenly between white and black voters, and any change would affect a district where the minority vote is more of a deciding factor. 

The board solved both of these dilemmas by adopting Alternative A with two changes: They swapped a single voting precinct from Robichaux's new district into Moran's district, thereby restoring the percentage of voting-age minority residents to about 53 percent. And they took another precinct in the Bayou St. John area out of Bonin's district and gave it to Robichaux. 

This last swap, initially proposed as a compromise by board member Woody Koppel, who represents a portion of Uptown, came as something of a surprise until Robichaux felt compelled to explain. "My son lives in that district," he said. 

The remark provoked some guffaws in the audience, particularly from community activist Sandra Wheeler Hester, who delayed the vote from happening on Monday, as originally scheduled, when she pointed out to the board that it hadn't given sufficient public notice of the agenda. Hester came back on Tuesday and seemed no more impressed with the proceedings. 

"They're fighting over turf," she said. 

At several points Tuesday evening Robichaux threatened to have Hester removed for speaking loudly out of turn, but he defended making a compromise based on personal considerations, saying it was within legal bounds.