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Volunteer Kathrin McGregor holds a sign and waves at passing potorinst, at a City of St. George petition site at Jefferson Highway and Floynell Drive, Saturday, August 4, 2018, where signatures were being collected to get the issue on the ballot. The group's opposoition has recently increased its use of social media ads asking people to support 'One Baton Rouge,' and to donate money to the cause.

During its first go-round, leaders of the petition drive to create a City of St. George vigorously and repeatedly attacked the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. And school system leaders responded in kind.

But this time, both sides have remained largely silent even as a second petition drive has raged for the past 13 months ago.

St. George supporters have mostly avoided mentioning schools publicly since launching their second petition drive in March 2018, even though their goal is the same as it was the first time: to carve a St. George school district out of the parish school system. Backers say school talk now, though, is premature.

“It was hard to discuss down the road when you have gotten past Stage 1,” said Andrew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign.

Stage 2 is coming, though, on Oct. 12. That’s when the 86,000 voters in the unincorporated area of the southeastern part of the parish that would make up the new city of St. George will get a chance to vote on incorporation.

School leaders have stayed mostly quiet this time, even though a new St. George school district would have a substantial impact on the parish school system.

If the school boundaries match those of the proposed city, the new district would take with it more than $85 million in state and local tax revenue and would displace almost 4,000 students, according to the latest available estimates.

There are six traditional public schools in the proposed St. George city limits. The most impacted would be Woodlawn High School, where 446 of its 1,210 students currently live outside the proposed city.

School Superintendent Warren Drake has had something to do with the more restrained approach to dealing with the St. George school issue over the past year.

The veteran educator spent a decade leading the Zachary school district, which broke away from East Baton Rouge Parish schools in 2003 and quickly shot to the top of the state’s academic rankings. St. George aims to form the fourth breakaway school district in the parish, joining Baker, Central and Zachary.

In June 2015, Drake returned to take over the parish school system, where he’d spent most of his career before heading to Zachary. Local leaders hoped he might successfully avert a second St. George petition drive, and he promised a more conciliatory approach.

“I want the same thing they want,” Drake said at the time. “I want our schools to be better.”

The three years prior to Drake’s return had been ones of constant acrimony, starting with unsuccessful attempts in 2012 and 2013 to create what was then called the Southeast Community school district.

Drake’s predecessor, Bernard Taylor, had just been hired in spring 2012 and he immediately went to the Legislature to testify against the new proposed district. Taylor spent much of his three-year tenure as superintendent combating the idea.

In summer 2013, after a second loss at the Legislature, where a two-thirds majority was required, school breakaway supporters changed course, deciding to follow the example of Central and incorporate as a new city.

Central had been initially rebuffed at the Legislature. To overcome that opposition, Central incorporated in 2005 into a city, and the following year supporters won first legislative and then voter approval to create a new Central school district, which opened in 2007.

Using that same logic, breakaway supporters hoped that if unincorporated southeast Baton Rouge became its own city, they too could overcome its critics in the Legislature and win a school district. 

The first St. George petition drive, which ended in 2015, came up 71 signatures short.

Drake promised then to meet regularly with St. George backers and said he'd try to address their concerns where he could. He said he'd also work to steadily improve the school system as a whole so voters in the area would see less need to break away.

“If there’s another time to vote, people will take a look at their schools and say, ‘This is what we’ve been looking for,’” Drake said.

Since then, Drake has met multiple times with St. George leaders.

“Through our conversations, we’ve made a lot of changes that needed to be made there,” Drake said in an interview with The Advocate.

Changes Drake pointed to included:

  • Placing several new principals and assistant principals at schools in the area and in 2017 and creating new magnet programs at Woodlawn middle and high schools.
  • Starting construction on a new $32.9 million K-8 school on vacant property in the Jefferson Terrace, to be completed in 2020, and completing last year a new $1.2 million four-classroom addition at Shenandoah Elementary.
  • Planning $80 million in construction that will see two to three new schools built in south and southeast Baton Rouge, using part of a 1 cent sales tax renewal for education approved by voters in April 2018.
  • The opening in August of a new charter school, BASIS Baton Rouge, next to Women’s Hospital in Airline Highway. Operated by Arizona-based BASIS Schools, which has several high schools that make national rankings annually, its new Baton Rouge schools has already proven popular and is seeking to open a second campus in Baton Rouge.

Drake also argued that several schools in the St. George area have improved academically during his tenure.

“Warren has been very open and receptive, it’s been very cordial and receptive,” Murrell with St. George acknowledged.

But, Murrell said, the overall improvement that Drake promised has yet to occur, noting that East Baton Rouge still ranks near the bottom in a state  that ranks near the in education as well.

“We feel like a smaller school district would be more receptive to the needs of the students,” he said.

In 2018, East Baton Rouge Parish schools ranked 52nd academically out of about 70 traditional school districts across Louisiana, down from 44th in 2015.

In their first petition drive, St. George supporters talked about building as many as six new schools in addition to the 11 they would take over and promised to offer a mix of traditional and magnet programs. They also published a map of the proposed school district — a map that was  larger than the proposed city they were then proposing and took in territory within the city limits of Baton Rouge.

This time around, St. George supporters have published nothing specific about their school plans.

M.E. Cormier, one of the leaders of Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, which opposes St. George, said that is a critical omission and the lack of a plan for public schools should concern potential supporters.

“They are still using that propaganda to sell their city, and there is no substance behind that promise,” Cormier said.

Like the superintendent, the parish School Board has mostly stayed quiet this past year when it comes to the latest St. George incorporation effort.

School Board President Mike Gaudet said schools have not figured much into the discussions surrounding the latest St. George petition drive — “fourth, fifth, or sixth on the lists of the things they talk about.” 

In any case, Gaudet said, the prospects of a St. George school district is well down the road.

“We kind of see a (St. George) school system being a minimum of three to five years in the future, even it it would pass,” he said. “Consequently, it would be hard for us to make any plans around.”

The school question, however, will return in a big way if voters say yes Oct. 12 to the City of St. George.

Murrell said forging a path towards a new St. George school district will be one of the first orders of business for St. George in addition to forming a city government.

Forming a school district won’t be easy, though, perhaps even tougher than forming a city government.

To qualify for state education funding, like previous breakaway school districts, the new St. George school district would need not only a two-third votes of both chambers of the Legislature, voters both statewide and across East Baton Rouge Parish will have to approve it as well in a public referendum.

Editor's note: This article was changed on Sunday, March 31, 2019, to note that there are six traditional public schools in the proposed St. George city limits.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.