St. George supporters propose larger district, six new schools

Supporters of creating the new city of St. George announced Monday if they succeed they will then seek to create a public school district even bigger in size than Baton Rouge, a district that would absorb 10 city schools but also build six new schools, including a new high school.

Those 17 schools would make up a new St. George Independent School District. The Legislature, and perhaps voters statewide, still will have to decide whether this proposed district could break away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which serves those areas.

The new St. George district would be much larger than previous proposed breakaway districts.

The leaders of the St. George incorporation effort are holding a public meeting at 6:30 Thursday at Woodlawn Baptist Church, 5805 Jones Creek Road, to discuss the latest in their incorporation efforts.

Last month, the group announced it had collected about half of the 18,000 signatures needed to let voters decide whether the unincorporated areas south of Baton Rouge’s city limits should become its own municipality. There’s no timeline to get the required signatures, which represent about 25 percent of the registered voters in the proposed city.

The new proposed St. George Independent School District would take in the boundaries of what supporters up until now have been calling the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System, an area that includes part of the city of Baton Rouge as well as unincorporated areas between Interstates 10 and 12.

Supporters are calling that portion of the new St. George school district the “eastside.”

The expanded district would also include all of the unincorporated areas of the parish south of Interstate 10, what supporters are calling the “westside.”

Supporters are projecting that existing sales and property taxes will bring in enough money to build the six new proposed schools. By contrast, Zachary and Central both passed new taxes to build schools after they successfully broke away.

“Based on our research, we see no reason to raise taxes to build additional schools or to run this school district,” said Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the effort.

The planned new schools would be three elementary, two middle schools as well as one high school. They would be built in the “westside” area south of I-10, an area where the parish school system has no schools.

In a written statement Monday, Keith Bromery, spokesman for the parish school system, said the latest proposal would still increase the percentage of racial minorities and children living in poverty served by the parish school system and could substantially reduce per pupil funding, “which would impact magnet and other quality educational programs currently provided to our students.”

“And it still leaves open the potential for federal regulators to revisit the desegregation decree that (parish school system) only recently came out from under after more than four decades,” Bromery wrote.

A study paid for by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation looked at the financial impact of St. George, estimating it would cause a new $53 million budget shortfall for Baton Rouge city services.

The study, released Dec. 1, didn’t stop there; it also looked at the impact on schools.

It found that a St. George school district, if it adopted the same boundaries as the city, would reduce per pupil school funding by an estimated $765 per child for children in the parish school system.

Children in the new district, by contrast, would enjoy an increase of $2,051 per child.

In June, the Legislature created on paper, by a majority vote, a new Southeast Baton Rouge school district as part of Act 295.

That act, however, says it “shall take effect and become operative” only after the Louisiana Constitution is amended to grant the new Southeast district certain taxing powers and access to the state per pupil funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program.

A simultaneous effort to place such a constitutional amendment on the ballot fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed.

Supporters say expanding the Southeast Baton Rouge district to encompass the new St. George Independent School District would require only a majority, not a two-thirds, vote.

In June, state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Baton Rouge, said turning the Southeast district into a municipal district might obviate the need to amend the state constitution and guarantee immediate MFP funding.

That interpretation is at odds with how the Legislature has treated this issue in the past.

State lawmakers required Baker, Zachary, then Central, to win statewide constitutional referendums before they could earn their freedom. Baker is a municipal school district, while Central and Zachary are community districts.

Article 8, Section 13 of the Louisiana Constitution grants taxing authority and automatic access to the MFP to the state’s 64 parishes as well as “city school systems.”

Later, the section specifies that five “municipal and other school systems” — Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as municipal districts in Bogalusa and Monroe” — “and no others” have this authority. These five districts are “regarded and treated as parishes and shall have the authority granted parishes.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was modified on Dec. 10, 2013, to reflect that the new district is proposing to have 17, not 16, schools. St. George supporters plan to build six new schools, and assume control of 11, not 10, schools from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. The 11th school is Riveroaks Elementary.