The much anticipated PBS “Frontline” special on the city of St. George incorporation effort that aired Tuesday night has drawn decidedly mixed reviews. But many of those on both sides of the issue seem to agree on one thing — the national attention was not flattering for the parish.
“Frontline” reporters spent eight months in Baton Rouge following the story of a group of mostly middle-class activists in the southern part of the parish, as they attempt to create a new city in hopes of establishing their own school system.
The documentary was titled “Separate and Unequal” and focused heavily on race and income levels, as well as Baton Rouge’s storied history with the federal desegregation lawsuit and parishwide busing.
St. George organizers issued a lengthy statement after the documentary aired, accusing filmmakers of spinning the issue to inaccurately make it about race.
“This movement has NOTHING to do with class or race,” the statement said. “It has everything to do with parents (black and white, rich and poor) who are fed up with the current education, or lack thereof, in the public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
The statement said organizers agreed to take part in the documentary initially because it was “sold as a film about education reform.”
“Making this movement about class and race is simply lazy,” the statement said. “We look forward to the day when people stop focusing on the color of someone’s skin or how much money they make and focus on the character or the individual.
But then again, that probably wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining, wouldn’t sell nearly as many papers or generate nearly as many viewers.”
Along with St. George supporters, the filmmakers interviewed a variety of local officials and activists, including Mayor-President Kip Holden, state Sen. Bodi White, school volunteer Belinda Davis and State. Rep. Pat Smith.
Holden was attending a charity event Tuesday night when the special aired and did not see the program, according to Scott Dyer, a mayoral aide.
White said he felt the documentary adequately represented both sides of the debate but thought the “racial overtones” were exaggerated.
“I don’t feel like I’m a racist or my constituents are racist because they’re middle class and want good schools for their kids,” he said. “At some point, we have to get past this throwing the race card and understand why we really want to do this.”
Some opponents of the St. George incorporation effort said they thought the documentary accurately and powerfully illustrated the potential economic repercussions and real-life impacts to students of creating a new city with a separate school system.
“It was a sad and embarrassing but accurate picture of what’s going on in our community,” said Metro Councilman John Delgado. “I hope that everyone who signed that petition watched the special last night.”
St. George organizers say they have about 17,000 of the 18,000 signatures needed to put the city proposal to a vote of the people who live within the proposed boundaries.
Baton Rouge State Rep. Ted James, another vocal opponent of the St. George movement, said the documentary did a good job of illustrating how the current school system provides school choices for Baton Rouge families that could be taken away if the new city and school system are created.
The documentary featured Nikki Dangerfield, a single black mother of four, with three boys who attend three different middle schools, because the school in their own district is underperforming.
“Those people who say we don’t have choice and options — they dispelled that myth,” James said.
James also said he could understand why the issue was being portrayed as one based in race after seeing footage of the St. George meetings.
“It’s obvious from the footage that the supporters of St. George have very little diversity,” James said. “I don’t know who signed the petition, but just looking at the leaders and the people who are attending the meetings, I can see how some people are drawing distinctions and making it about race.”
But he added that he has gotten to know leaders of the St. George movement like Norman Browning and Lionel Rainey and believes their “intentions are pure.”
Woody Jenkins, a former legislator and newspaper owner who is a proponent of the new city, said he felt the content was balanced, but the tone set by the title and music were unfair.
Jenkins said complaints that the new city or school system would be less diverse are based in falsehoods.
“East Baton Rouge Parish School System is a one-race school system now,” he said, noting that there are only about 4,000 white students in the majority-black district.
Jenkins said a St. George school district will be far more diverse.
East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Member Barbara Freiberg said she was disappointed that the documentary allowed the St. George organizers to freely describe the school system as failing without providing any actual performance data.
“To say all schools are failing is just plain not correct,” she said. “We are a C district, and the last performance score had us 5 points from a B. That is not a failing school district.”
Patrice Taddonio, a “Frontline” spokeswoman, said the “overnight snapshot ratings” for the documentary indicate it reached about 1.8 million viewers, which she said is strong performance, “especially for a film with a predominantly local angle.” The official ratings have not yet been released.