On Saturday, in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish, voters decided to break away from Louisiana’s capital city of Baton Rouge to create the new city of St. George. It will be the fifth-largest and fourth-wealthiest city in the state. And it may be a harbinger of more new cities to come—cities designed to make schools whiter, while leaving everyone else behind.
The vote follows a years-long campaign by the area’s largely white, more affluent residents to create a new school district in the parish. Citing complaints about underperforming schools, parents brought proposals to the state legislature in 2012 and 2013, which were both denied. When they couldn’t get their new school district, they decided to get a new city instead.
Opponents of St. George say the criticism of the area’s schools is wildly overblown. In recent years, the school district has directed significant funds towards this area, including $33 million to rebuild Jefferson Terrace Academy elementary school. “It’s such a contradiction when they say they haven’t received their fair share of services. When I look at that area, I don’t see neglect,” said Sharon Weston Broome, the mayor-president of Baton Rouge, at a phone banking event Saturday, in between calls to her constituents telling them to vote “no” on the incorporation.
“Definitely race is a part of this equation,” she added. “We can talk all around it, but it’s very obvious—look at the district that’s been carved out. The schools are not failing schools, but they are integrated schools.” East Baton Rouge Parish is 47 percent black, while the new city of St. George will be just 12 percent black.
“They do not want their kids to go to school with minority students,” said Dadrius Lanus, who serves on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board representing the north Baton Rouge district. “That has always been the thing they’ve hinged on to try to get more people to corral around their efforts.” (The organizers behind the St. George campaign did not return a request for comment.)
The city of St. George will still need to create a separate school district, which requires legislative approval. It will also need to be approved by voters at the state and local levels. But the incorporation of the new city establishes a crucial foundation for those efforts.
If it succeeds, the new school district would join the growing “school secession movement.” Since 2000, 73 communities have successfully seceded from their school districts, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on public education funding. Many of these communities are located in the South, in school systems with a lower share of white students. A recent study published by the American Educational Research Association found that segregation between school districts, as opposed to within them, accounted for 70 percent of all school segregation for black and white students in 2015, up from 60 percent in 2000.
Because of Brown v. Board of Education, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System had been subject to the longest-running desegregation order in the country, which lasted until 2003. As the last remaining desegregation orders under Brown have been lifted, school secession has increasingly become a way for majority white communities to “create their own pockets of relative advantage,” says Erica Frankenberg, one of the authors of the study.
A parallel development is the “cityhood movement,” in which unincorporated communities— most dramatically in metro Atlanta—have formed their own cities, which have been, on the whole, whiter and wealthier than the surrounding areas.
By removing tax dollars and resources from those areas, breakaway efforts can have disastrous consequences. A financial impact analysis conducted by the city of Baton Rouge last year found that the incorporation of St. George would result in an estimated annual reduction of revenues for the rest of the city-parish of $48.3 million, requiring the government to either reduce services and expenditures by 45 percent or increase taxes.
Lanus, whose district would previously have included the recently separated cities of Zachary and Central, said that the separation of those school districts “affected us tremendously. We lost several schools and in the midst of that, lost teachers, students, and of course those properties, which took away a lot of revenue.” School officials estimate that the school system would lose $85 million in revenue if a St. George school district mirrored the boundaries of the new city.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, tensions ran high. On idyllic suburban streets, signs saying “No New Taxes, No St. George” competed for space with those emblazoned with the St. George motto: “Better Government. Local Control.” Ultimately, 54 percent voted in favor, while 46 percent opposed.
The margin of support has increased over the years. In 2015, St. George supporters were short just 71 signatures to put the proposal for incorporation on the ballot. In response, the architects of St. George took aggressive action to guarantee they wouldn’t fail again: They redrew the map. They cut out pockets of opposition from the city boundaries, in dozens of cases creating precise incisions in the map to exclude particular apartment complexes with a higher share of black residents. The resulting city, now 12 percent black, was 20 percent black in the 2015 map.
“That alone tells a story of what their motives are,” said M.E. Cormier, executive director of One Baton Rouge, which led the opposition campaign. “That city did not accidentally become richer and whiter, they designed it to be what they wanted it to be.” With the new city map in place, as well as a new law limiting the amount of time in which people could withdraw their signatures, St. George organizers were able to collect enough signatures to put the incorporation on the ballot.
Even these efforts failed to erase the opposition entirely. Branden Barker, who has lived in the area soon to be St. George since 2004, has two kids who, like 45 percent of students living in the area designated as St. George, currently attend East Baton Rouge public schools that lie outside of the new city. If a St. George school district is formed, they, along with about 3,000 other students, would have to transfer out of their current schools. Barker is committed to keeping his kids, who participate in magnet and gifted tracks, which a new school district likely wouldn’t have funds to support, in their current programs.
Beyond the disruption to his own kids’ education, he is opposed to feeding the “us vs. them mentality” that he feels is tearing the city apart. “If I have to move to keep them in their current programs, I’ll move,” he said. “I don’t want to move because of something like this, but it means enough to me to keep them in the program they’re in.”
Opponents also say the city’s proposed finances just don’t add up. Proponents of St. George have estimated the city’s budget at $34 million and have promised residents that their taxes would remain the same. In an independent study, however, two Louisiana State University professors analyzed East Baton Rouge’s 2018 budget and additional police spending for the new city, and estimated a far higher budget of $52 million. The average expenditure of cities with comparable populations (excluding the highest and lowest examples) was about the same.
At a recent public presentation of their findings, supporters of St. George fired back at the professors that their estimates didn’t account for the savings the city would secure by contracting out services to private companies. “When we’re talking about estimates, it’s hard to counter an unknown contractual arrangement that doesn’t exist,” said Jared Llorens, one of the authors of the study. “If I were a betting person, I would say the probability is not in their favor.”
The city of Sandy Springs, the pioneer of the cityhood movement in Atlanta, has been cited as a model by proponents of St. George for outsourcing most of its services to cut costs. But in recent years, the city decided to bring many of those services back under public control, as costs on private contracts rose. The city is also in the process of raising property taxes, despite earlier promises to keep them the same.
Opponents of St. George are determined to continue fighting the incorporation. One Baton Rouge is exploring routes for legally challenging the election or the petition that put the measure on the ballot in the first place. The mayor’s office is fielding calls from residents living on the border of the St. George map who don’t want to lose access to services provided by the city of Baton Rouge, and are asking to annex their property into Baton Rouge proper before the election results are certified in November. Even as St. George proponents triumphantly posted a photo of a “Welcome to St. George, Est. 2019” sign on Facebook, critics maintain that the future of the city is an open question. So too is the area’s longstanding attempts to finally integrate its students and foster a shared sense of community.