Putting on his salesman hat, East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Warren Drake on Monday launched an informational campaign Monday at the Press Club of Baton Rouge urging parish voters on April 28 to renew a 1-cent sales tax, much of which will fund school construction projects.

“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of work has gone into the making of this plan,” Drake told the luncheon audience gathered at the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel. “I think it’s a very good plan and it’s very good for our community.”

But that marketing push was overshadowed by the revival of the St. George incorporation effort and its accompanying goal to eventually break away and form its own independent public school district as Baker, Central and Zachary previously did. 

Asked about the new St. George petition drive, which was announced Friday, Drake rattled off a number of initiatives the school system has undertaken since he took over in June 2015 that he said might please the 85,000 south and southeast East Baton Rouge Parish residents who would live inside the latest St. George boundaries.

These include new principals and assistant principals at schools in the area, new magnet programs at Woodlawn middle and high schools, a new four-classroom addition planned for Shenandoah Elementary, as well as plans to build a new K-8 school on vacant property in Jefferson Terrace subdivision to open in 2020.

“This is not in response to St. George,” Drake cautioned. “We are going to take care of our children wherever they are in the parish.”

Drake also noted the opening this fall of a charter school next to Women’s Hospital in Airline Highway, a school that will be operated by Arizona-based BASIS Schools, “probably the best charter school group in the country.”

If voters renew the 1-cent sales tax on April 28, they will greenlight an estimated $362 million worth of school construction projects to be completed between 2019 and 2029. Drake talked at length about these 22 “named projects,” which span the parish.

The most expensive of those, estimated to cost about $80 million, are plans to build brand new schools serving the area in the south part of East Baton Rouge Parish where St. George would be situated. Construction would start around 2020 on an elementary school and four years later the school system would build either a school or two schools serving the upper grades.

School Board members from that area last month successfully pressed Drake to move these projects toward the front of the line, pushing back other projects.

These board members expressed concern that waiting too long to build schools in this fast-growing but school-scarce part of the parish could increase discontent with public schools and make it easier for St. George to gain public support if it resurfaced. St. George supporters, during their first petition drive, which fell short in 2015, promised to build as many as six new schools.

The “tax plan,” as it’s called, sets aside $10 million for purchasing land for the new schools, but it’s not clear where. They could be built all on one or build separately on multiple pieces of property.

Drake said Monday he’s leaning towards building near LSU, so that the new schools can more easily partner with the university, but he said he’s far from settling on where.

“It could be anywhere from the Mississippi River to the Amite River," Drake said.

If voters approve the incorporation of St. George, they are expected to move on to try to create a new independent school district. But that would require a constitutional amendment approved by the Legislature and then the voters across the state.

The revised City of St. George covers 60 square miles, smaller than last go-around. The territory would include six existing schools, down from 11 last time. Like last time, if a new school district is created, would-be St. George residents would no longer be able to attend popular magnet programs located within the city limits of Baton Rouge. That includes A-rated Mayfair Lab, which is on the edge of the proposed city and is slated for a $30 million reconstruction if the 1-cent sales tax is renewed.

Drake gave a preliminary estimate of between 1,000 and 1,500 students living in the proposed St. George who would no longer be able to attend public schools in Baton Rouge. Drake said that parents in that situation should think about that as they consider how to vote April 28.

“I think when people go to the ballot and realize the opportunities we give them, they will come to the polls and make the decision they are going to make,” Drake said.

South Baton Rouge isn’t the only area of potential discontent. Some residents from other parts of Baton Rouge were disappointed with the final project list that the School Board approved Feb. 22 and have discussed potentially opposing the 1-cent sales tax renewal.

In particular, supporters of Glen Oaks and McKinley high schools have pressed for more money for their schools. McKinley High backers have pressed for a complete reconstruction of that historic high school, one of a similar caliber to what Lee High received when it was rebuilt in 2016.

Drake expressed hope that voters in these areas will see the merits of the improvement plans and see “the dynamic program that is proposed for them.” The superintendent said noted that McKinley High’s plans are still in flux. He pointed out that there’s ample vacant or blighted property near that high school.

“There are three blocks that surround McKinley High,” he said. “If we were to buy those blocks we could do a whole reorganization of the school.”

Drake also said the proposed construction projects being presented to voters are meant to save money in many cases.

“We are tearing down six facilities. We are consolidating other facilities,” he said. “So we will be more efficient with the administration, we will be more efficient with the money.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.