After more than four years of debates, petition drives and town hall meetings, residents in the southeastern portion of East Baton Parish got their first chance Saturday to make an up-or-down vote on incorporating the city of St. George. 

For two families on opposite sides of the issue, the vote is equally emotional. Depending on its outcome, both say they may consider moving.  

"It's life or death over here. It's big time. We're so excited," said Claire Rutland, 38, a marketing specialist, sitting at her kitchen table in Inniswold, her four-year-old son spiraling around her with a plush dinosaur in his hand. 

Five miles away, near the neighborhood of White Oak Estates, Vicki and Jay Brooks struck a much more somber tone when contemplating the vote. "It's disheartening," Vicki, 63, said. "It's disturbing."

If approved by voters on Oct. 12, St. George would convert a significant unincorporated area into the parish's fifth municipality, with a population of more than 86,000 people. Early voting began Saturday and runs through Oct. 5, except Sunday. 

Claire Rutland's support for St. George centers on education — specifically the public school options available for her 7-year-old son Brayden, who has high-functioning autism. 

He currently attends a specialized private school, but insurance won't cover that for long. Eventually, he'll have to go to public school, and Rutland hopes that'll be in a newly created St. George school district. 

“When this came about, we were just all over it,” Rutland said. “We couldn’t believe that we actually might have a chance to stay here in our house and send our kids to a good public school.”

The movement to create the city of St. George was rooted in the proponents' desire to create a separate school system, but they were told by state legislators that wouldn't happen unless they became a city first.

The creation of a new school district will also need approval in a statewide and parishwide vote, but Claire and her husband Chase say they're willing to wait it out in order to remain in their neighborhood. 

For Vicki and Jay Brooks, opposition to the proposed city stems from what they say is its "exclusionary" mindset. Only 12 percent of the proposed city is black. That's after St. George's supporters redrew the initial boundary, which was about 20 percent black. 

"Great cities grow by inclusion, not exclusion," said Jay Brooks, 65, an oncologist. "That's the most frightening thing to me."

The couple — who have three adult children — also said they're uncomfortable with uncertainties surrounding the city's financial outlook.

St. George's organizers say the city would spend $34 million a year and have a surplus of $24 million, based on annual tax revenues of $58 million that largely draw on a 2 percent sales tax already in place.

Two LSU professors disputed those numbers in a report commissioned by an opposition group, claiming organizers overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses, which would ultimately result in a deficit.

"When you do the arithmetic, there is no surplus. There’s a deficit from day one," Jay Brooks said. 

Both families said the rhetoric surrounding St. George has at times gotten out-of-hand, particularly in online forums like Facebook and Nextdoor. 

"I think people are talking past each other instead of listening," Brooks said. "Instead of sitting face-to-face and discussing a point, they're just ranting back-and-forth on social media."

Claire Rutland, who grew up in Baton Rouge, said the issue has her family split, with her parents on board and her sister opposed. 

Still, the idea of the city of St. George gives Rutland hope. But what if it doesn't pass?

"We'll move," she said. "To somewhere where the school system is good."

Prairieville is at the top of their list, though they're also considering Central and Gonzales. 

Jay and Vicki Brooks, who have lived in their neighborhood for more than 30 years, said they also would consider moving, though only if the vote is approved. 

"If this area drastically changes in a negative way, and it doesn't feel like home anymore, I could see us making a change," Vicki Brooks said, adding that they would likely move to the city of Baton Rouge. 

"That's my address now and that's where I want to remain," she said. 

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater