Nathan Wilson | Reporter
The Natchitoches Parish School Board overcame last-minute doubts to approve new voting boundaries April 25. The resolution to adopt the plan was approved unanimously.
Dr. William Blair, Director of Demographic Services for the Louisiana Legislature, attended the meeting to answer board members’ questions before the vote. He clarified that the plan reflected the final boundaries of school board voting districts and that he would provide physical maps to board members following the vote. Beverly Broadway emphasized the new maps reflect voting districts and have no effect on school attendance zones or taxing districts.
Tension over the significance of the process became apparent in a special called meeting April 21. The apportionment process assigns Natchitoches residents to voting areas defined by population. As a decennial event, the process determines the boundaries of voting districts for a term of 10 years and can affect who wins elections and the strength of their electoral challengers.
Rhonda Guidroz voiced frustration over how the 2020 census enumerated Natchitoches residents. “This is based on a flawed census,” she said. Her remark reflects concerns that many Natchitoches residents were left unaccounted for during the census. Less than 50 percent of Natchitoches residents self-responded to the census, placing it among the bottom quartile of parishes in the state in participation.
The U.S. Census Bureau employs vast numbers of enumerators to verify residents at addresses that fail to respond to notifications sent by mail, but this stage of data collection was disrupted by the outbreak of Covid-19 and was later cut short after operations resumed. Critics of the process believe efforts to reach residents in person were insufficient during a census marked by historically low response rates nationwide.
Board Vice President Reba Phelps responded. “It may be flawed, but it’s all we have.”
Dannie P. Garrett III, a consulting attorney, generated the final map of school board voting boundaries using the census data. He reminded Board members the parish, city and state governments would be using the same census data in generating their apportionment maps. He also provided insights into the rules he followed to carve 11 representational districts from within the parish’s boundaries.
School Board President Steven Harris had previously requested revisions to create an additional majority-minority district from district 11 to better reflect demographic changes in Natchitoches Parish and comply with the Voting Rights Act, which mandates creating representational opportunities for minority voting. Changes between the drafts primarily affected district boundaries in the south of the parish. Harris pointed out the April 21 meeting presented an opportunity to develop a map the entire board could agree on. “We can talk about that tonight and settle that tonight,” he said.
Garrett addressed the differences between map drafts, saying both complied with limitations on how precincts are split and the concept of one person, one vote, but the original plan could be challenged in court. “I’m a lawyer. I like going to court. It’s what I do, but if I could do it another way sometimes it’s better,” he said.
Phelps responded. “We’re a School Board and we don’t like going to court. We would like to stay out of there if at all possible.”
Dorothy McGaskey stressed the legitimacy of the process before appealing to the need for fairness. “We have to use the census, so this is nothing new,” she said. “(It’s) the information that we need to have in order to make a decision that’s going to be fair.”