Residents of the southeast part of the parish have waited long enough for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to demonstrate real improvements, Norman Browning told a crowd Thursday night.
“We’ve been waiting 30 years,” said Browning, the leader of Local Schools for Local Children, a group attempting to create a separate school system in southeast Baton Rouge. “We can’t wait anymore. We’re hurting our children, we’re hurting our future.”
Browning, for the third time in two weeks, made an emotional case for creating a new city within East Baton Rouge Parish as a means of getting a new school system.
He spoke to a group of about 60 people on Thursday at the Bluebonnet Library alongside state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.
The state Legislature passed a bill this past session that established the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District. But a companion bill that would have designated funds for the school district was withdrawn for lack of support.
Browning said the bills proposed in the Legislature addressed the majority of financial arguments made by opponents of the breakaway district — including paying their fair share for debts and legacy costs, or retirement benefits, for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
But the one hurdle they couldn’t overcome, he said, was the argument that the proposed school district did not correspond to city or parish boundaries as it does everywhere else in the state.
“ ‘You’re nothing more than a collection of neighborhoods,’ they told us,” Browning said. “Well we’re a collection of neighborhoods that has come together to fight for their children. To me, I’d say that’s a community.”
Browning said the group is continuing to gauge interest from residents on the issue of incorporating.
Mary and Lee West, who live in Jefferson Terrace, said they have supported the breakaway school district from the beginning, and a new city would only sweeten the deal.
“We live out here, we pay our taxes out here and then the money would stay here,” Mary West said. “That’s what we’re hoping for. There’s just not a bad thing about it yet.”
But the Wests said they’d support a new city even if they had to pay a little more in taxes.
“If it makes for a better community, I’m willing to pay a little more,” Lee West said, noting that new taxes would be offset by the money they’d save by pulling their children out of private school to send to a better public school.
But Belinda Davis, a member of One Community One School, said adding a new city would further complicate things for the parish and school system.
“It fractures the city in ways that are concerning to us just like the way the fracturing of the school district concerns us,” Davis said.
The proposed district boundaries for a new city would include all of the unincorporated land south of the city of Baton Rouge, which makes up the St. George and East Side Fire Protection Districts.
The area encompasses more than 100,000 residents.
But Browning stressed that it was only a starting point. Neighborhoods that are not interested in incorporation could potentially be carved out, he said.
White noted that when the city of Central was first being considered for incorporation, backers looked at a much larger swath of land that included areas such as Pride and Chaneyville, which opted out.
White said Central’s boundaries ultimately were shaped by the areas that wanted to be included.
He said following a similar process would help in incorporating a new city in the southeastern part of the parish since only registered voters within the defined boundaries get
to vote on whether to incorporate.
Residents will get a chance to vote on incorporation only if backers of the move can get 25 percent of voters within the boundaries to sign a petition stating they want to incorporate.
White said that school district boundaries, which have already been set by the Legislature, would not necessarily match up with boundaries of a new city. Many residents living in a new city may still attend the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, he said.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, declined comment on Thursday, saying only that the administration is researching the issues.
He said in a previous interview that the administration opposed a new city, and would not necessarily hand over the 2 percent sales taxes collected by the city-parish that the new city would need to fund its governmental services.