East Baton Rouge Parish’s experience with school secession movements might seem exceptional, but it turns out the parish has plenty of company. A national report catalogs 71 such efforts across the country, 47 of them successful, since the year 2000.
Baker, Central and Zachary school districts are three of the successes, all breaking away from the parish school system in 2003 and 2007. The fourth and best-known effort, the St. George incorporation drive, a precursor to creating a breakaway school district was unsuccessful, but supporters have vowed to try again.
The city of St. George is dead, at least for now.
Most states set a much lower legal bar than Louisiana in forming new school districts, according to the report released Wednesday titled “Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts.”
Jersey City, New Jersy-based EdBuild, which produced the 40-page study, is critical of the secession trend, calling it a “a new, twenty-first-century approach to segregation.”
In particular, EdBuild questions the financial cost of creating these new, typically small and less-efficient school districts, the drain on the finances of the districts left behind and the resulting exacerbation of socioeconomic and racial disparities. The nonprofit calls on the federal government and, failing that, the states, to police school secession efforts to make them harder to create and to limit any negative effects.
“This is not just a story of neighbors divided in a self-interested society; rather, it could be better characterized as a story of a broken system of laws that fracture and of policies that have failed to protect the most vulnerable,” the report concludes.
EdBuild notes the unsuccessful St. George incorporation effort, as well as successful secessions in Memphis, Tennessee, and Yuma, Colorado. In the Memphis case, six communities broke away in 2014 from the Shelby County school system to create new districts.
The nonprofit EdBuild, which formed in 2014, has previously issued reports on inequities in public school funding. While researching one of those reports, Rebecca Sibilia, chief executive officer of EdBuild, became interested in a controversial secession effort in Birmingham, Alabama, and decided the subject was worth a closer look.
“As far as we are aware, this is the first compilation of state policies on secession,” Sibilia said
As part of that research, EdBuild began an analysis at what happened in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“What surprised us was the persistence of these efforts,” Sibilia said.
The secessions in East Baton Rouge all took years of effort: Baker, eight years; Central, six years; and Zachary, four. The St. George movement is five years old, growing out of a more modest southeast Baton Rouge school separation effort launched in 2012.
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What makes this persistence more remarkable, Sibilia said, is that Louisiana has one of toughest paths in the country to creating independent school districts.
While Louisiana has no state law or policy on school secessions, the state requires amending the state constitution before it will fund new school districts. The only other states with that requirement are Florida and Georgia.
In Louisiana, amending the constitution means approval of two-thirds of the Legislature then successfully winning a public vote both statewide and in the parish where the school district seeks to form.
Organizers of the St. George effort were following the lead of Central, which first sought to incorporate as a municipality to give it more clout in winning the legislative vote.
In most states, school district secessions are a lot easier. Thirty states, EdBuild found, have statutes laying out how these secessions occur. Of those, only Ohio requires the blessing of the state Legislature.
“In all others, secessions can happen through some combination of administrative approval and at the will of the local community through citizen action,” according to the report.
A few of those states have established safeguards to protect against the potential negative effects of such breakaways, EdBuild found. Nine states call for consideration of the fiscal impact of new districts. Six states look at whether the new districts will be financially efficient. Six more require consideration of how the splits will affect racial and socioeconomic diversity. Only California, Nebraska and Wyoming call for consideration of all three.
Roy Heidelberg, an assistant professor of public administration at LSU, said Louisiana should consider establishing a state policy on school secessions and review the safeguards other states have instituted.
“Given that you’ve seen more and more of these, it seems the Legislature should be considering how to handle this so that we don’t impoverish other districts,” Heidelberg said.
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Heidelberg helped write a series of reports starting in 2012, along with LSU economics professor Jim Richardson, looking at the financial impact of the proposed city of St. George and related school independence proposals. Heidelberg said laying out a process for paying off the debt of the departed district also would be helpful.
When approached for comment about the EdBuild report, Norman Browning, a leader in the Committee for the Incorporation of St. George, said he had no comment.
Belinda Davis, president of the group One Community, One School District, which formed to fight St. George, said she’d like state law to require divvying up of “legacy costs,” the cost associated with retirees from the school district left behind.
“(Legacy costs) create financial liability in the original district that is very hard to deal with,” Davis said.
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Pat Smith echoed Davis. Smith fought against school breakaway efforts first as a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and more recently as a state representative. She recalls getting nowhere trying to get breakaway advocates to pay for legacy costs.
“They were just like, ‘That’s not our problem,’ ” Smith recalled.
Smith said she’s distressed by the decline of interest in the importance of diversity in public education.
“People right now are in this mode of individualism more than inclusion,” she said. “I hate to see it that way. Because when you look at how a school district thrives, it’s through inclusion, not through separation.”
Creating a new school district is not only way communities can gain more local control.
For instance, in 2012, Heidelberg and Richardson suggested a process by which East Baton Rouge Parish could allow greater autonomy to different communities short of full separation. Specifically, the parish would have a "unitary" financial system in which the entire community pays into a pool and money is distributed through a formula to more autonomous school entities. New Orleans employs a variation on this method to fund its array of independent charter schools.
Sibelia said EdBuild did not take a stand on various alternative governance proposals in developing its latest report.
“There are a lot of ways to get more local control without pulling your money out of a tax base that is intended to serve all students,” Sibelia said.