This is not the first time Trey Cook has spent long days knocking on door after door.
In college, he hawked educational books and Bibles over a long summer. But now, he and his wife, Patty, have a more personal cause, lobbying their neighbors about an idea: creating the city of St. George.
The Cooks are part of a group of 25 to 50 active volunteers dedicated to the movement. For the last year-and-a-half, they’ve knocked on doors, collected signatures for a petition and asked residents in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish to envision a world where their kids could attend high-quality community public schools. Their goal is to form their own city, with the next step the establishment of an independent school system that performs better than the parish public schools.
The volunteers for St. George call their effort a grassroots one. They spent more than a year attempting to collect signatures from 25 percent voters in the hypothetical city’s boundaries, turning reams of paper in to the Registrar of Voters Office last fall. But the petition that would bring the proposition to ballots fell short by nearly 2,700 signatures, as thousands of names had to be tossed because they weren’t valid.
Once again, volunteers have taken to the streets and the phone lines. One knock on a door, one phone call, one more signature could make the difference in determining whether residents get the chance to have their say in voting booths on whether to create a new city.
The volunteers have until the end of May to collect the necessary names that will bring their petition to the golden number of 17,859. These passionate advocates — who are hitting the street along with paid workers — say having their goal close in sight has energized them even more, and they say they are shocked they were already able to gather 15,165 signatures.
That much alone likely amounted to the largest petition drive in the state’s history. But it’s not enough yet, and the volunteers will need every ounce of energy they have left to squeeze out the final signatures that could make or break their last year-and-a-half of work.
For the Cooks, the perseverance to keep pushing for the new city comes from their family’s experience with Baton Rouge public schools. One of their daughters is a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, the parish’s top-ranked public high school. The other is a freshman at Woodlawn High School, which is graded a C school although it features a gifted program.
When they tell people where their daughters attend school, the Cooks said they are used to receiving two opposite reactions. Friends’ eyes light up when they say “Baton Rouge Magnet” and then narrow with worry when they say “Woodlawn.”
The Cooks said they debate every year if they have made the right choice by sending their daughters to public schools. They said they can only name a handful of friends who have remained steady classmates throughout their lifetime.
“We would watch their friends peel off like layers of an onion,” Trey Cook said.
Schools at heart of St. George
St. George leader Norman Browning and others unsuccessfully asked the legislators in 2012 and 2013 to create a new school district in the southeastern part of the parish. The Cooks in 2013 showed up at the Legislature in support of the proposed Southeast Community School District.
“There’s so little sense of community,” Patty Cook said about Baton Rouge schools, noting what she saw as sometimes lackluster parental involvement.
After the Legislature rejected the idea of a school district that wasn’t within a designated municipality, advocates refocused on the concept of St. George.
But it is the schools that volunteers talk about when making their pitches.
St. George volunteer Dwight Hudson told people as he knocked on doors in the Shenandoah area on a recent Wednesday that the new city would bring new and better schools.
As he walked through the neighborhood, Hudson clicked through a phone app that showed him who was registered to vote in all of the area’s homes and if they had signed the petition yet.
He said he targets homes where one family member has signed the petition but another has not.
“You can almost never saturate an area,” he said, noting that people are home at different times of the day and that makes it difficult to pinpoint all of the potential signatures.
Hudson keeps his door-to-door approach friendly and casual. At the height of his involvement in the St. George movement, he was working 12 to 15 hours a week on promoting St. George, but he is down to only a few hours a week now.
In a navy St. George T-shirt and jeans, he rapped on doors and then stood back a few feet while waiting for someone to open them. If nobody answered, he tried the doorbell the second time around.
The reactions were varied. At some houses, people instantly came outside to chat with him. At one, someone peered through one blind and blinked at him until he walked away. And at others, his knocking and doorbell ringing angered the pets.
“I hate when dogs bark; I always feel like I’m disturbing somebody,” he said with a laugh.
Regardless of whether the person he interacted with signs the petition, Hudson ended each conversation with “appreciate ya!”
Not everyone is friendly, though. The Cooks said people have driven by them and shouted obscenities and flipped them off. But it’s the friendly ones who are willing to sign the petition that keep them going.
Hudson said they are past the point of aiming to educate the people whose doors they knock on about the St. George incorporation effort. Instead, they are most focused on those who have just been waiting on an opportunity to sign.
In 1½ hours on the late Wednesday afternoon, Hudson secured six more signatures and gained three leads on people who may want to sign but were not home at the time. Some of those who signed said they remembered signing before, but they weren’t showing up in Hudson’s database as signatories, a problem Hudson said they have encountered.
He said petition pages are sometimes lost, and other times their voter registration records are not up to date.
Hudson and other volunteers also set up signing stations at grocery stores, gas stations and other public places where people can sign the petition. The volunteers say they are trying to cast as wide a net as possible.
“As hard as we’re working to get it on the ballot, there are people working just as hard to not get it onto the ballot,” said Patty Cook.
The St. George efforts have not all been volunteer-based. St. George leaders have also hired companies to help them reach their final signature goal.
The private companies have caused some trouble for the movement, though, as two contracted workers had their names listed as witnesses on signatures that The Advocate reported had been forged on the petition.
A different political firm, 3 Strategies LLC, was brought into the St. George movement just weeks ago when St. George leaders correctly assumed that they would not have enough signatures on the petition. Since then, 3 Strategies workers have been paid to help collect names.
St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey would not say how much money the St. George incorporation effort has raised, nor how much money St. George is paying 3 Strategies. In January 2014, St. George has raised at least $18,750 for their campaign.
“After nearly four years, we’ve just now been able to raise enough money to hire a lawyer,” Rainey said. He also said fundraising has improved as the campaign gained steam.
The volunteers maintain their core group working on the ground game is made up of regular, middle-class people chatting with other regular, middle-class people about how to make schools better.
For Trey Cook, putting in a full day of work at his IT job and then spending his after-hours working for St. George harkens back to the days of selling books.
“It’s very similar in that I feel like I’m working 80 hours a week right now,” he said.
“It’s just a daily part of our lives,” added his wife.
They have faith that they will collect the right amount of signatures and that an election will happen to create a city with a better school district. But even if they fail, the Cooks say the volunteers’ efforts will not have been for nothing.
“I don’t think this is going away,” said Patty Cook. “This whole thing has brought attention and focus on the school system that hasn’t been there. Whether St. George happens or not, it’s not going away.”