New Election Districts for La. Board Members Rejected

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Citing a failure to provide adequate opportunities for minority candidates and voters, the U.S. Justice Department has rejected a plan that carves out new election districts for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The action this month against the redistricting plan will halt elections for the board that had been scheduled for Oct. 19.

New elections are expected to be postponed until next fall, unless the legislature takes steps to hasten the process of producing a plan acceptable to federal officials, or the state board appeals to federal district court in Washington or asks the U.S. Attorney General to reconsider the ruling.

The board is scheduled to hold its first meeting since the Justice Department ruling on Oct. 24.

Louisiana's board is one of only 14 state boards of education whose members are elected by the voters.

Each year, the Louisiana panel draws up a basic state-aid budget for education that is constitutionally protected against reductions by the legislature. If the board and the legislature disagree over the budget, funding reverts to the previous year's levels.

The 11-member board also includes three members appointed by the governor.

Black Voters 'Submerged'

In an Oct. 1 letter to state officials, the head of the Justice Department's civil-rights division stated that the plan drawn up by Louisiana "continues to provide for only a single majority-black district out of the eight districts used for the elected [board] members."

"Significant concentrations of black voters" could be combined to recognize the black voting potential in certain areas of the state, wrote Assistant Attorney General John R. Dunne. Nevertheless, under the plan, "these concentrations are fragmented into three districts, submerging black voters in white-majority districts," Mr. Dunne argued.

The federal official also contended that the redistricting plan was drafted to protect incumbents.

"While protecting incumbency is not in and of itself an inappropriate consideration, it may not be accomplished at the expense of minority voting potential," Mr. Dunne noted.

Nearly one-third of Louisiana residents are black. But only one elected board member, from a district incorporating New Orleans, is black, as is one appointed board member.

Because of their history of racial discrimination, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires Louisiana and other Southern states to get Justice Department clearance for all changes in their election methods.

In addition to rejecting the state education board's plan, the Justice Department this month rejected about half of the redistricting plans submitted by local parish governments in Louisiana.

Few Population Shifts

The redistricting plan designed by the state board and approved this year by the legislature was based largely on a map accepted by the Justice Department following the 1980 census, according to Carole Wallin, staff director for the board.

At about the same time that the board of education was reworking its district lines, the legislature was having to do its own redistricting of U.S. House districts. Because its population increased by less than 0.5 percent during the 1980's, Louisiana is losing one of its eight Congressional seats.

The state constitution expressly states that there will be eight single-member election districts for the board, however. So the Congressional and school-board boundaries could not coincide.

The board "used the core Congressional districts that it had used before [and] that had been approved by Justice 10 years ago," said Ms. Wallin. Some of the lines were readjusted based on population changes, she said, but "there really wasn't that big of a shift."

In his letter, Mr. Dunne noted that during legislative consideration of state-board redistricting, alternative proposals were put forward that would have provided two majority-black districts.

Vol. 11, Issue 07, Page 15

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