Former East Baton Rouge School Superintendent Clayton Wilcox made a prediction when Central leaders went to the Legislature in 2004 and asked that they be allowed to follow in the footsteps of Baker and Zachary and form their own independent school district.
It wouldn’t stop there, Wilcox warned, and would lead to the “Balkanization” of the school system. Indeed, another effort to split from the school system, this one in southeast Baton Rouge, was already brewing.
“I urge you to stop this before it gets out of hand," Wilcox told the lawmakers then.
Fifteen years later, the warning appears prophetic. Central would become the parish’s third independent school district in 2007. And a group of residents in southeast Baton Rouge has been vying ever since Central’s success to create a fourth.
Their cause has proved to be the most lengthy, expensive and controversial effort yet. After unsuccessful attempts in 2012 and 2013 to persuade the Legislature to let them form a school district, southeast Baton Rouge supporters decided to follow the path taken by Central by first forming a city, which they are calling St. George.
On Oct 12, after six years and two petition drives, voters in the unincorporated area of the proposed City of St. George will finally get the chance to vote on whether they want to incorporate. If they are successful, supporters hope to use their new status as a municipality to persuade the Legislature to let them create a companion school district.
A vote on the incorporation of a new city of St. George will happen in October, the governor's office has confirmed.
Creating a St. George school district, though, could prove as difficult, perhaps even more difficult, than creating a city.
In 2004, opponents of creating a Central school district repeatedly pointed out that they weren’t a city. While state law doesn’t require a public school district to be connected with a municipality, the status of Baker and Zachary as cities showed they were political entities that were capable of running their own school systems.
Central would soon become a city as well. That fall, in the space of less than four weeks, about 6,000 Central residents signed a petition seeking to form a city — 2,000 more than was required to move forward with their plans. On April 23, 2005, 63 percent of the voters in Central agreed to incorporate a new City of Central.
The following year, two-thirds of the Legislature, with votes to spare, agreed to call a statewide election that November to amend the state Constitution to allow Central to form is own independent school district. Fifty-five percent of voters across the state, and 69 percent of voters in East Baton Rouge Parish, voted in favor.
Domoine Rutledge, who served as general counsel for the parish school system from 2003 to 2018, often representing the school district at the Legislature, said Central, unlike St. George, had little organized opposition. And while not being a city was “paramount in the conversation” about Central's effort, that is just one of several issues the proposed southeast school district has been facing, Rutledge said.
As was the case in 2012 and 2013, when St. George's backers fell short of the supermajority in the Legislature needed to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, a renewed push for a southeast Baton Rouge school district is expected to face similar opposition, especially from black lawmakers locally and across the state.
“Getting a two-thirds vote on a contentious issue is really difficult,” Rutledge said.
If it does make it on the ballot, St. George's supporters then have to get the votes statewide to amend the state’s constitution, which could be more difficult than was the case for Baker, Zachary and Central given the heightened opposition.
And while the Oct. 12 vote on creating a city is limited just to the residents in the proposed area, every voter in East Baton Rouge Parish would have a say in whether to form a St. George school district.
It’s a sign of the widespread discontent with public schools in Baton Rouge that this fight has gone on as long as it has.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is home to some of the highest as well as some of the lowest performing public schools in Louisiana. Few of the highly rated ones are neighborhood schools. Shenandoah and Woodlawn elementary schools, two of the six traditional public schools located in the proposed city of St. George, are exceptions.
The parish school system’s enrollment has slowly declined over time, while enrollment in neighboring parishes such as Ascension and Livingston has grown. The exit of Baker, Central and Zachary accelerated that decline, taking away thousands more schoolchildren. In addition, Baton Rouge also has one of the highest rates of private school attendance in the country. And families have a growing number of independent and district-sponsored charter schools from which to choose.
With the exception of those attending magnet or gifted programs, students in East Baton Rouge Parish schools are overwhelmingly African-American — and increasingly Hispanic — and quality for public assistance.
During its first go-round, leaders of the petition drive to create a City of St. George vigorously and repeatedly attacked the East Baton Roug…
The departure of the relatively affluent southeast Baton Rouge area would take with it significant tax revenue — estimates range from $85 to $95 million a year — leaving the rest of the East Baton Rouge school system likely with more struggling schools as well as a higher proportion of children living in poverty.
According to Louisiana’s academic rating system, East Baton Rouge lags near the back of the pack, behind the state average, while Baker is near the bottom. Meanwhile, Zachary has reigned as No. 1 since it opened while Central and several other school districts in the surrounding area rank in the top 10.
Chris Rials, a St. George organizer, said the East Baton Rouge Parish school system over the past decade has “continuously declined” compared with other districts in the state.
Superintendent Warren Drake, who took over the top job in 2015, argues that his tenure has been marked by growth, including the latest test scores from spring of this year.
“We’ve actually grown academically every year, except the year of the flood,” Drake told a luncheon audience Friday at the Main Library.
Drake, who spent a decade as superintendent of top-ranked Zachary, has had better relations with St. George leaders than his predecessor, Bernard Taylor, and has adopted some of their suggestions. Drake also helped persuade voters last year to build at least two new schools in south Baton Rouge, an area with a dearth of public schools.
Drake rarely talks publicly about St. George but made clear Friday he opposes it.
“I believe we are better together,” he said.
A new St. George school district, if it matched the boundaries of the city of St. George, would cause a significant amount of disruption. According to school system estimates, nearly 4,000 children would have to change schools as a result.
“We are definitely very concerned by the thousands of parents and families that will be immediately displaced if a new school district were formed,” said M.E. Cormier, one of the leaders of Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, which opposes St. George.
Magnet school parents would be especially affected and, unsurprisingly, have been among the staunchest opponents of a new school district. Nearly 1,500 students living in the proposed city attend 22 schools with magnet program outside of St. George. Another 135 students travel to magnet programs inside St. George.
The new school district’s boundaries don’t have to match those in the city of St. George. They don’t in Baker, Central and Zachary. In Zachary, the school boundaries were based on the attendance zone of Zachary High, not those of the much smaller city of Zachary. St. George backers have not released a school map as they did during their first unsuccessful petition drive. They say it’s premature to do so until they have successfully created a city.
The group leading the effort to incorporate a new city of St. George in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish is heavily using social media rather…
Even if it matched the city boundaries, it’s unclear whether a new St. George district would have enough space for all the students who try to enroll. The six schools in St. George have about 4,700 seats while about 5,600 public schoolchildren currently live in St. George though not all will necessarily enroll. At the same time, more than 3,100 children who live there attend Catholic schools.
Rials said with the addition of several temporary buildings, the school district should be sufficient to handle the initial demand. He also said the new school district should have plenty of money to expand quickly if needed. He estimated that the school district would start with about $17,900 per student in revenue, notably more than East Baton Rouge Parish spends per child now.
“We will not need to raise taxes.” Rials said.
Rials said he expects the new school district to grow over time, but how much is anyone’s guess.
“The performance of our new school may attract others that attend private school and/or homeschoolers to participation,” he said. “It would be conjecture and speculation at this time.”
Advocate staff writer Terry L. Jones contributed to this article.
To create its own school district, a new City of St. George would have to clear these hurdles.
• Convince the legislature to call a statewide election to amend Louisiana’s Constitution – which is required to make St. George eligible to receive education funding from the state, allow it to receive free school books and other instructional materials and give it authority to levy local property taxes. The first chance to call such a referendum would be the 2020 regular session, which begins March 9, and it requires approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate to head to the voters. If approved, the election call is not subject to veto by the governor.
• Make the legislative changes necessary to establish, among other things, the territory a St. George school district would take from the East Baton Rouge Parish school district. The St. George school boundaries need not match those of the new City of St. George. They don’t in Baker, Central and Zachary. In Zachary’s case, the district is much larger than the city. The legal changes would require a simple majority of the state House and Senate, but are subject to possible veto by the governor.
• Persuade the governor to sign or not stand in the way of the legislative changes needed to create a St. George school district. A veto would throw a St. George school district in doubt and overriding one is rare, happening only twice in the last century.
• Win a majority of votes across the state and in East Baton Rouge Parish to enact the constitutional amendment. Such amendments were approved in 1995, 1999 and 2006 to create school districts in Baker, Zachary and Central. The earliest a St. George school statewide election could occur is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. The earliest that a new school district could start operation is July 1, 2021.