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The East Baton Rouge school board is winning the voting card case on appeal, but the case could now go to court

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A state appeals court has agreed that the East Baton Rouge Community School Board broke no state law when it split up three districts in the nine-member electoral map the board narrowly approved in May.

The verdict will not affect the Nov. 8 election, but it will not end the case either. Plaintiffs may still prevail if they can show that it is possible to draw a nine-member map that does not divide districts.

The case now returns to the court of District Judge Tarvald Smith for a possible trial.

Amid legal uncertainty, state election officials in early July revived old school board maps approved in 2014 for use in the Nov. 8 election. The Court of Appeals’ decision allows all of this to stand. Any future school board voting card decisions will only affect future elections—the next scheduled school board election will be in Fall 2026.

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Thirty-three candidates are on the November 8 ballot and all nine school board districts are being contested.

In a 23-page ruling issued Friday, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the bulk of a June 17 ruling by Judge Smith. Smith had nullified the nine-member map approved by the school board in May and ordered the implementation of a competing 11-member map that did not break up the districts.

Attorney Brian Blackwell, who along with his attorney partner James Bullman is representing the four Baton Rouge plaintiffs in the case, said Monday he was out of town and could not comment.

Gwynn Shamlin, the school board’s general counsel, did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

The redistribution process has been expensive, with taxpayers billing nearly $125,000 as of late and counting.

The lawsuit centers on a 54-year-old state law that limits the ability of elected officials to split up voting districts when drawing their voting cards. Although it is common practice in Louisiana to split counties, this law prohibits the practice unless the governmental agency cannot avoid such splits. The enacted Plan 22 partitioned districts while the Ware/Collins Plan 1-11 did not, which plaintiffs claim is evidence that it was possible to avoid district partitioning.

The panel of three judges — Walter Lanier III, Allison Penzano, and Jewel “Duke” Welch — disagreed.

They sided with school board attorneys who, in approving Plan 22, made it clear that they wanted to keep nine members. Consequently, the judge found it inappropriate to compare Plan 22 to a plan like the Ware/Collins plan, which changes the number of board members from nine.

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“The mere existence of other plans that provided for a school board whose constituency consists of entire districts did not automatically compel the school board to select those plans,” the ruling said.

In his June 17 decision, Smith focused on the school board’s failure to agree on their preferred size before the final vote. He pointed to the language in the bylaws, which said the school board could approve an electoral card only “after determining the number of members of that board.”

However, Circuit Court of Appeals judges Lanier, Penzano and Welch found that the school board “was not required to take a vote and make a statement or first make a resolution determining the number of its members and then take another vote.”

Rather, two other state laws make it clear that school boards only have to make a single resolution to decide how many members they have and what constituency boundaries they have, the judges wrote.

The appeals court’s ruling means that in order to successfully challenge Plan 22, plaintiffs must show that it is possible to draw a nine-member ballot map that does not divide the boroughs. To do so, plaintiffs must refute board reorganization expert Mike Hefner’s contention that it was impossible to do so without violating other reorganization criteria set forth in federal law.

All maps with nine members, which the school board had considered separate districts.

However, one of the plaintiffs, James Finney, says he drew such a map.

On June 13, he testified before Judge Smith that over “a couple of hours on a Friday night” he drew a nine-face map that didn’t divide any districts. Finney, a math teacher at ITI Technical College, drew six of the 19 maps the school board considered, including the Ware/Collins 1-11 plan.

However, Smith did not admit Finney’s new map into evidence because it had not been independently verified for accuracy.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who pushed for the rejected 11-member card and was highly critical of her peers, urged the board to end the case.

“We can solve this quickly by creating a nine-member plan that doesn’t split districts, violates state or federal laws, and get our job done,” Ware-Jackson said. “Although the demographer we hired has said they can’t, that doesn’t mean it can’t be.”

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