Chris Kindred

The fight began with little subtlety. White, wealthy parents in the southeastern corner of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, an area known as St. George, wanted their own school district. They argued that the schools in East Baton Rouge were routinely named as among the lowest performing in the state, and were unlikely to improve any time soon. So, in 2012, some of those parents went to the state legislature with a proposal: Create what would be called the Southeast Community School District.

The legislature shot it down. The parents needed a two-thirds majority for the creation of a school district, and they couldn’t marshal the votes. A similar push in 2013 was rebuffed as well.

The organizers were discouraged, but undeterred. They needed a new strategy—and they didn’t have to look far. In 2005, a nearby community, Central, was unable to gather support for a school district from the legislature, so it incorporated as a new city. That helped it gain legislative approval to create its own school district, Central Community Schools, which opened its doors in 2007. The St. George supporters launched a petition drive and, in August 2013, registered a new website: StGeorgeLouisiana.com. They would try to create their own city.

A pattern has emerged over the past two decades: White, wealthy communities have been separating from their city’s school districts to form their own. According to a recent report from EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on public-school funding, 73 communities have split to form their own school districts since 2000, and the rate of places doing so has rapidly accelerated in the past two years. St. George, which activists seek to incorporate as a city, is a textbook example.

Oftentimes, in these instances, predominantly white parents are trying to break away from a majority-minority school district, which in turn isolates their property-tax dollars in a new district. (Many public schools rely heavily on property taxes.) The argument, then, is that the parents can better dictate how their money is being spent.

St. George is no different. The proposed area is more than 70 percent white and less than 15 percent black, while East Baton Rouge Parish is roughly 46.5 percent black. St. George supporters decry the violence and poor conditions of the public schools in Baton Rouge. Their tax dollars, they have argued, aren’t being put to good use. (Representatives for the St. George campaign’s organizers did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, including several emails, phone calls, and Facebook and LinkedIn messages.)

The parents’ first petition drive to create a city, which ended in 2015, looked as if it would be successful. Supporters of St. George, arguing that the schools in East Baton Rouge Parish were not doing enough for their children, had amassed more than 18,000 signatures, and submitted them to the registrar to be certified. But the same day as they submitted their petition, a group known as Better Together submitted its own forms to the registrar. “We did a withdrawal campaign,” M. E. Cormier, a spokeswoman for the Better Together campaign, told me. “We went door-to-door, told people about the detrimental effects of the creation of St. George, and we were able to get 1,000 people to withdraw their names from the petition.”

When everything was settled, on June 13, 2015, St. George came up 71 signatures short. “It was a squeaker,” Cormier said.

“More than anything, this is shining a light on problems that face this parish,” Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the proposed city, told The Times-Picayune a week before the final tally was counted. “It’s forcing a very uncomfortable conversation to be had. It’s not something that you want to talk about, it’s not something that anybody wants in the newspaper or on television.”

But it has been, because after the failure, the organizers kept fighting.

For decades, Baton Rouge’s schools operated under a desegregation order, imposed in 1956 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. That order meant, in theory, that the integration of the city’s schools was being closely monitored. But in 2003, a federal judge lifted the order; at the time, it was the longest-standing such order in the country. When the order was lifted, the school district was 75 percent black; now it is 81 percent black, and 89 percent minority overall—due in no small part to the three communities that have separated from East Baton Rouge Parish since.

Many of the city’s residents, black and white, argue that the St. George campaign is an attempt to further segregate the public schools, leaving Baton Rouge’s black students with fewer resources and opportunities. Dadrius Lanus, a lifelong resident of East Baton Rouge Parish, was one of the city’s black students not too long ago. He’s a product of the school district, and graduated from Glen Oaks High School in 2007. After high school, he went to Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees.

Last fall, Lanus ran for school board and won. His campaign was criticized for receiving outside funding, but his central message resonated with voters: The schools in Baton Rouge had been inequitable for too long, and it was time for a change. “If you look anywhere south of Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge—which is what we call the Mason-Dixon line—that’s where you have the largest disparity in the entire city,” Lanus told me. “Anybody that lives in North Baton Rouge is more of your lower-income, disadvantaged communities, and anything south of Florida Boulevard are your more affluent communities.”

Lanus, alongside other residents who oppose the creation of St. George, is concerned that their breaking away from the parish would simply deepen the inequality in the schools in East Baton Rouge. “We’ve already seen several school breakaways, and we’ve seen how drastically it has affected our school system,” he said. “What happened in Zachary and Central,” two other communities that split from East Baton Rouge, “was because of white flight,” he told me, and “for a city the size of Baton Rouge, it has been devastating.”

St. George organizers, however, see the separation as necessary for their children. “We’ve had enough of failing our children,” Rainey said in 2014. “We’re not going to do it anymore, and we’ll go to the length of creating our own city—to create our own education system—to take control back from the status quo.” In Louisiana, a group hoping to incorporate a city is required to wait two years and one day after an unsuccessful attempt before it can launch another petition drive. So in 2018, activists once again sought to create a new city.

In between the failed 2015 attempt and the new one, they tried to iron out a new strategy. They cut down the geographic area of their proposed City of St. George. The original map was roughly 85 square miles; the new area was 60. It would be easier to gain the signatures necessary for a new community with a smaller area. As soon as the proposed map was released, several people in favor of keeping East Baton Rouge Parish together noted that the new map, coincidentally, carved out several apartment complexes—places where black and low-income families lived.

St. George supporters vehemently denied the suggestion that the map was drawn with any malicious racial intent. “The decision on what areas to include and not include was based exclusively on the amount of previous support for the effort,” they wrote in a post on their official Facebook page. “If a precinct had a small percentage of signatures and clearly did not want to be in the new city, they were not included in the updated boundaries.” But practically, that meant that the proposed area of St. George became whiter and more affluent.

The organizers did something else significant as well, Michael Beychok, a political consultant who lives in what would become the new city, told me: They stopped talking so much about the schools. “They know, and we know, that the school argument is not their best argument to incorporate,” said Beychok, who is one of the organizers of One Baton Rouge, a group opposed to the creation of St. George.

When the focus was primarily on the schools, it triggered a PBS Frontline investigation, and fierce accusations locally about segregation. That made it difficult to get some voters who might have otherwise supported the petition to sign on.

St. George advocates began going door-to-door gathering names to sign their new and improved petition; this time, armed with a list of those who had signed before, it was easier. Businesses, worried about the infrastructure of a new city, requested to be annexed into the city of Baton Rouge, which harmed the potential tax base, but organizers brushed it off. Meanwhile, those who opposed the effort to incorporate St. George commissioned studies about the economic impact of its creation.

On their website, St. George supporters argue that the creation of a new city would not negatively affect the City of Baton Rouge; however, a recent study from the City of Baton Rouge–Parish of East Baton Rouge showed a potential $48 million reduction to the city’s budget.

The nuts and bolts of how St. George would work have led to a circular debate in the parish. But organizers say they’re looking to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, as a model, where in Sandy Springs, only 14 employees are on the city’s payroll. “St. George’s government will be leaner, smarter and more responsive to the needs of a successful 21st-century city,” they wrote on their website. “The organizers of St. George have been inspired in their formulation of its governing strategy by the innovations put in place in Sandy Springs, Georgia—a state-of-the-art suburb of Atlanta.” They argue that they have been the “backbone” of the economy in East Baton Rouge, and that “incorporating a city would reverse this unjust circumstance to an extent.”

Sandy Springs has been successful due, in large part, to the privatization of public expenses, whether that is its call center, public works and facilities, or communications more broadly. The city, however, has a less-than-flattering history. As Sam Rosen wrote in The Atlantic, when the mayor of Atlanta sought to annex Sandy Springs, “he was met with outrage and obstruction. Two spokesmen for Sandy Springs promised to ‘build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy, or own, or live within our limits.’”

St. George supporters are used to fielding calls that their goal to create a new city is racist. “Yes, I’ve been called a racist in no uncertain terms. I’m not a racist. I can’t— you know, I’m not going to try to attempt to defend it,” Norman Browning told Frontline in its 2014 documentary, Separate and Unequal. (Browning did not respond to a request for comment from The Atlantic on LinkedIn. When I called his office, I was put on hold for 30 minutes before the line went dead. Each subsequent call was sent directly to voicemail.) “What I do is I let my actions speak, and how I conduct myself and how I treat people speak.”

In late February, St. George supporters found out they’d gathered enough signatures to force a vote on incorporating the city—the vote is scheduled for October. More than 90 percent of the signatures on the second petition came from white voters in the proposed St. George area.

After his election, Dadrius Lanus ran for vice president of the school board; in January, he lost to Jill Dyason, who has been on the board for 17 years and is its longest-serving member. In July of last year, Dyason signed the petition to allow a vote on St. George. Dyason responded to a request for comment, but as of publication had not granted a request for an interview or commented on her support for the push to allow a vote. (After a leadership struggle, Dyason lost her position as vice president earlier this month.) She told The Advocate, however, that she had considered signing for a long time, but stopped short of doing so on the first petition. She wants a final decision on the matter, she said.

In October, she will get one, when voters in the southeastern corner of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, will head to the polls, along with the rest of the state. They’ll elect a governor and state senators, municipal officials and other state executives. And then, somewhere toward the end of the ballot, the voters in the area that would be St. George will decide whether they want to create their own city; those in East Baton Rouge Parish do not get a vote, due to state law. What the St. George voters decide will set into motion a series of events that could lead to the creation of a new school district.

If the St. George organizers are successful, they will go to the legislature to get a constitutional amendment to create their own school district. The worst-case scenario for those who oppose its creation, Beychok, of One Baton Rouge, told me, is that “not only our schools, but our community, becomes segregated, and isolated.

“That is not how communities rise up and improve the quality of life for people,” Beychok said. “You don’t do it by separating yourselves from your neighbors.”

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