Supporters of breakaway school still hopeful

Days after falling short for the second time, supporters of creating a breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge asked the nearly 150 people gathered Thursday night whether to try a third time in the Legislature or work to create a new city in the area.

“Is it easier to get 20,000 signatures on a petition or is it easier to get 70 votes in the House?” asked Norman Browning, president of the breakaway school group, prompting chuckles in the audience. “I’ll reserve my comment.”

The idea appealed to Brandi Stafford, a resident of southeast Baton Rouge.

“I like the idea that we as a community get to vote, and not have to rely on the Legislature,” Stafford said.

Stafford works in Central and said she sees much greater community involvement there and thinks that would improve if southeast Baton Rouge had its own school district. Central became the parish’s fourth public school district in 2007 when it successfully broke away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Thursday’s gathering at Woodlawn Baptist Church of Browning’s group, Local Schools for Local Children, was pitched as a celebration.

“Despite what you’ve heard from the media, this was an enormous win for the southeast area,” Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the group, told the audience.

Rainey said while breakaway supporters weren’t able to get the 70 votes needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, they did win legislative approval for the enabling legislation, Senate Bill 199, which required only a majority vote to pass.

It establishes a community school district that would extend from the Interstate 10/12 split south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

Once Gov. Bobby Jindal signs the bill, which Rainey said should happen soon, the district is created.

“The only thing that is left is the funding mechanism for this district,” said Sen. Mac “Bodi” White, R-Central, the legislative champion for the breakaway district.

White said that incorporating is potentially a way to break through that impasse.

He noted that Central was able to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot after successfully incorporating in 2006.

Afterwards, White also said that even without a constitutional amendment, there are potentially ways of getting state education funding if southeast Baton Rouge becomes a city.

Supporters showed a map of a potential city. It covered the unincorporated areas of southeast Baton Rouge, following the boundaries of both the St. George and Eastside fire departments.

In an answer to an audience question, Browning said that the new city boundaries would include much of Baton Rouge that is south of I-10, but would exclude Cedarcrest, Parkview Oaks and Wedgewood subdivisions, areas that have been part of the proposed southeast school district.

White jumped in at that point.

“The school district doesn’t have to be contiguous with your city,” he said.

He noted that both Central’s or Zachary’s municipal boundaries are not the same as their school districts.

Not everyone in the audience was a supporter.

“This would make it difficult for us,” said Marcus Nauman, who has two daughters who attend Glasgow Middle, but live in the southeast area. “We don’t go to a traditional school.”

Timothy McCall, a biology teacher who just finished his first year at Glen Oaks High School, said that the parish school system gave him the chance to get a good education at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. He said separation is not the way to go.

“Instead of breaking things down, we need to work hand in hand,” he said.

White responded that the school system is focusing on education at the extremes but not in the middle.

“We’ve done nothing for the middle class,” White said. “To me this is for the middle class.”

Incorporating will be a big fight that will spark new opposition, he warned.

“No separation, no new start is ever easy,” he said.