“The Legislature’s told me to pay (the judgments). The Legislature’s voted to pay these judgments. This is the first year that I remember we’ve ever had the problem.” John kennedy, state treasurer
If a new school district were to be created to go along with a proposed city of St. George, there immediately would be a problem of space, both sides of the St. George issue agreed Monday.
There are far more students in the proposed city limits than could be served by the existing school buildings, said Belinda Creel Davis, president of One Community, One School District, to a crowd of about 100 people at the group’s meeting Thursday evening.
The meeting was called by the group to discuss a number of items, but center stage was talk about the impacts of what a proposed new city and accompanying school district could have on education.
Davis said the proposed St. George area includes eight buildings that have a capacity of 5,000 seats, but there are 10,327 East Baton Rouge Parish school system students currently living in the area.
“Immediately, the city of St. George is going to need to build new schools,” Davis said.
One Community, One School District formed in spring 2012 by parents and other concerned residents in response to efforts to form a breakaway school district from the parish school system.
On Thursday night, leaders of the group talked about issues they continue to have with the idea of splitting off more of the East Baton Rouge Parish system into a separate district.
There are issues of legacy costs in paying for school staff retirement benefits, bonded indebtedness of the school district and the reduction in racial and socioeconomic diversity that the proposed breakaway school district would bring, Davis said.
“They are carving out a section of town that is wealthier and whiter than the district they leave behind,” Davis said.
After the meeting, Lionel Rainey III, spokesman for the Committee to Incorporate the City of St. George, said the only goal is to provide a quality education for every child without needing to resort to magnet schools or gifted and talented programs.
“If you have a good school system, you don’t need a magnet program,” he said. “To me, whenever they scream racism it means they have no argument left.”
The East Baton Rouge Parish system couldn’t be less diverse and yet other cities in the parish see good diversity, which is what St. George would expect, Rainey said.
Leaders of the One Community, One School District group also worked through a series of “myths and facts” regarding the petition drive in the southern part of the parish to form a city of St. George.
One myth, said Davis, is if the city is created, an accompanying school district would automatically be formed without going back to the state Legislature for a constitutional amendment. That’s not true, according to information from the Louisiana Department of Education, she said.
At the meeting, audience members were invited to write down any questions they might have for Davis or Tania Nyman, vice president of One Community, One School District, to answer and although some of them involved schools, many of the questions were about money or services that needed to be answered by the St. George organizers or the city-parish.
Davis said residents of the area need to ask proponents of the new city to show a budget for the proposed schools and city to demonstrate how the services will be funded.
“Demand the information you need so you know what you’re getting into,” she said.
The movement toward forming a new city called St. George got its start after the Legislature didn’t take action that would allow a proposed new school district for the area to move forward.
In response to comments that legislators were uncomfortable forming a school system that was outside of a city limit, residents in the area of south Baton Rouge started work to change that.
About four weeks ago, organizers started a petition drive to gather 25 percent of the registered voters in the southern part of the parish for a new city, which for St. George means more than 18,000 voter signatures.
Rainey said after four weeks of gathering signatures, things are going well.
“We are very happy with the progress we’re making,” he said. Although he didn’t have a total amount of signatures gathered so far, he said they’re on the path to get enough to get the issue to a vote next year.
In addition, the group plans a large canvassing effort during the two November weekends of Nov. 2 and Nov. 16, Saturdays without LSU games, to make a major push, he said.
The area of the proposed St. George would include the unincorporated part of the parish south of Baton Rouge including the East Side and St. George fire protection districts, about 85 square miles with about 107,000 residents.
Rainey said the effort is not one to tear Baton Rouge apart and the entire area being proposed as St. George is in the unincorporated part of the parish, Rainey said.
“The goal is not to destroy Baton Rouge,” he said before the meeting.
St. George organizers maintain they already pay for fire department, police protection through the Sheriff’s Office as well as garbage and other services through taxes.
William Daniel, the Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer, said the city-parish hasn’t made a comment on whether the proposed city can financially support itself.
“We’ve made no comment on their ability to run a city,” Daniel said. Figuring out the financial viability of carving out a new city is something the proponents need to do.
In addition, the city-parish also hasn’t run any numbers on how much they stand to lose in tax revenue if the new city was formed to include high revenue producers such as the Mall of Louisiana, he said.
However, Daniel pointed out that for years the city has paid for road improvements, economic development and other services for the unincorporated areas.
“Now that the city has supported them for years and years, they want to take that and break off,” Daniel said. “This parish has had unprecedented economic success since Mayor Holden has been in office because we’ve all pulled together. This is divisive.”