One year after the controversial campaign failed to create the city of St. George, the city’s most passionate proponents say they want to start over again a year from now.
The 21-month push to create a new city in the southeastern part of the parish was fueled by people wanting a separate school system and tax base for their community. Volunteers amassed 17,788 valid signatures on a petition that would have brought the creation of St. George to a vote, but they were 71 signatures short of the necessary 25 percent of voters in the proposed boundaries of the city.
The St. George movement also drew blistering criticism from some city-parish leaders and residents. It’s expected to become an issue in the upcoming East Baton Rouge Parish mayoral candidate election, and many major candidates already are laying out their political strategies for how to prevent the movement from resurfacing.
Opponents worried last time that creating a new city with 25 percent of the parish’s population would devastate the city-parish budget and leave behind many of Baton Rouge’s poorer residents.
After the Registrar of Voters Office announced last June that the St. George petition fell short of its required signatures, state law mandated that the incorporation effort could not come back up for two years.
St. George co-chairman Norman Browning said the same frustration is still brewing within people in the southeast part of the parish who are frustrated that their neighborhood public schools are not highly rated. But affording private school also is not an option for everyone, which Browning said has forced young families to flee to neighboring cities like Zachary with top-rated school systems.
“Our intention is to move forward with this,” Browning said. “Nothing’s changed. People still need mortgages to put their kids through school.”
In another year from now, Browning expects that the St. George movement will not have trouble regaining its spark and keeping the stamina to go through another petition process.
The purpose of creating the new city was to create a separate school system from East Baton Rouge Parish, but creating the school system without the new city was unsuccessful in the Louisiana Legislature.
“The energy for St. George is sustained by frustration over a lack of quality education,” said Dwight Hudson, who volunteered for the St. George campaign and is running for the Metro Council this fall.
One sign of the St. George movement’s confidence: Its Facebook page compared the local St. George movement to the global “Brexit” of people in the United Kingdom voting June 23 to leave the European Union.
“Britain chooses sovereignty. We completely understand. 50 weeks and counting,” reads the St. George Facebook page.
While the recent appointment of East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake has excited many people in the parish for the future of schools here, Browning said he is not sure if anyone can overcome the hurdles of improving the local school system. Browning said St. George supporters have spent too many years hearing that an incoming superintendent would make the necessary changes.
Drake did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
Three of the major candidates running for mayor-president in the fall election — John Delgado, Bodi White and Sharon Weston Broome — held public office during the battle over St. George and took positions on the issue. All three say they plan to use their mayoral power to drill down on schools if elected.
The East Baton Rouge mayor-president generally has little control over the school system, which is run by a separate School Board and superintendent. The three candidates all say they want to have more of a hands-on role when it comes to schools, though.
During the first St. George incorporation effort, Delgado, as a Metro Councilman, went on the offensive and sharply criticized St. George backers. White, a state senator, tried to help St. George supporters create a separate school system through the Legislature, which failed. And Broome opposed the incorporation efforts as a state senator but was less outspoken on the issue than Delgado and White.
Delgado said he will bring the same passion to opposing St. George should the issue of incorporation arise again, but he said he understands the desire for better public schools.
“I always thought St. George was going after a fly with a sledge hammer,” Delgado said.
White also said he wants to keep East Baton Rouge parish in one piece but defends his involvement in trying to create the St. George school system. He said he was acting on behalf of constituents he represented at the time and trying to address their grievances.
As mayor, though, White said he’d represent the whole of the city-parish and believes St. George supporters should give him a chance to make them feel satisfied in East Baton Rouge.
“I want the opportunity to help fix the problem before we get to that point,” he said about the St. George movement resurfacing. “I very much want this parish to stay together. And I’m hoping we can fix their problem.”
Broome said she would want to work hand-in-hand with the school system’s superintendent to address problems involving the parish’s schools. She also questioned whether there is an appetite in the community to refight the battle over St. George.
“When this effort failed last time, I believe the people sent a message that was very loud and clear, and to continue with this effort would be very divisive and counter productive,” Broome said.
Browning said the prospect of a new mayor-president taking office has not changed the minds of St. George organizers about whether they want to remain part of Baton Rouge.
But should the St. George incorporation effort be revived, opponents believe it will have less of a chance of catching on this time around now that people are more familiar with the effect it could have on Baton Rouge.
The group Better Together/Residents Against The Breakaway convinced many last year to withdraw their names from the petition.
They sent mailers and knocked on doors of people who signed the document, which was subject to disclosure under public records laws, and told them it was not too late to remove their names.
Their data-driven approach was successful, and they collected more than 1,200 withdrawal forms that they turned into the Registrar’s Office while the petition was being verified.
Dianne Hanley, a leader of Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, said she was especially proud of the diverse group of people who worked together to prevent St. George from happening. She expects the coalition would grow if St. George organizers were to make a second attempt at their petition drive.
“People have learned to speak up when there’s harm that can happen,” Hanley said. “It won’t be just me. All the people who have felt that this is harmful will come forward again.”
Browning said the St. George supporters expect to soon start putting together tactics and strategies for their next campaign. He said raising money is especially important and that they have identified potential financial backers.
St. George organizers were never legally required to disclose their donors or finances, though they would have been if the effort reached the ballot. Organizers were never willing to reveal how much money they spent, and political pundits said last year it could have ranged from $50,000 to $300,000 or more.
After last summer’s campaign, Better Together said their group raised and spent more than $45,000 from 237 donors whose names they did not disclose.
Browning said he expects that selling St. George to people a second time around will require a few tweaks from the first campaign but no major adjustments. He said there was no blueprint for such a massive petition drive in Louisiana the first time around.
After the Registrar’s Office declared the petition was 71 signatures short, St. George backers filed a lawsuit that alleged the registrar made major errors while determining the petition’s validity. State District Judge Wilson Fields tossed out the lawsuit last July on a procedural issue, saying there was no legal remedy to force the registrar to take a second look at the petition.
“The biggest disappointment was the way it was taken away from us,” Browning said while reflecting on the petition drive but declining to be more specific.
Hanley said she hopes people use the remainder of the two-year cooling off period to find better solutions to the problems in Baton Rouge, rather than creating a separate city.
“We’ve had a year, and we’ve got another year that we all could be working together to make these things better,” she said.