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.