St. George effort survives legislative threats

The legislative session could have created some major road blocks for the city of St. George this summer.

But after three long, contentious months and many hours of debate on various bills that could have slowed or stopped the incorporation — or at least created school reforms that might have appealed to future St. George voters — not a thing has changed.

The legislature killed or abandoned bills that would have created a moratorium on incorporations, given St. George supporters a November election deadline and allowed everyone in East Baton Rouge to vote on the new city proposal rather than only those who live in the proposed city limits.

Bills to reform the East Baton Rouge Parish School System by giving schools more local control also were not successful. Supporters of the bills say it would have taken the steam out of the movement to form a new city of St. George, which is rooted in the desire for a new school system.

“We are where we started before the legislative session,” said Jane Patton, spokeswoman for Better Together, a group that opposes the proposed City of St. George. “At this point, eventually, it looks like this might go to a vote.”

Patton, who lives within the proposed St. George boundaries, said the group will continue to focus on education and on informing residents about financial and educational impacts related to incorporation of the new city.

Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the incorporation effort, said St. George supporters came out ahead after the session.

“It was a successful legislative session in the fact that they weren’t able to stop the democratic process,” he said. “Every bill looked to change the rules, and get in the way of having an election.”

Senate Bill 674 initially intended to block all incorporation efforts to carve out time for a legislative study; however, the bill was later amended to give St. George organizers a July 23 deadline to collect signatures for a November election. The bill died last week, so St. George has no limit on the amount of time it can take to collect the 18,000 signatures needed to put the city proposal to a vote.

But since they were already operating under pressure, Rainey said, the group is still on track for a November election. The group might also consider the December election, which would require them to turn in the petition for verification by Oct. 21, Rainey said.

“We’d like to go ahead and get this on the ballot and get it voted on,” Rainey said. “We don’t want to stretch it out any longer than would be needed.”

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the Mayor’s Office supported legislation to impose a deadline because the city-parish is stuck in limbo, which looks bad to bond holders.

“We are disappointed that there’s no time limit; we thought the laws certainly needed to be examined,” he said.

While the Mayor’s Office opposes the new city, Daniel said, they are not actively strategizing to prevent the election. However, he said, if an election takes place and the new city is approved, it likely would face litigation.

Rainey said the St. George organizers were generally supportive of bills to reform the school system, but their failure in the legislature only demonstrates the need to create a new city and school system.

“It would have been a step in the right direction to start to reform these schools,” Rainey said. “But this is validation of how these schools are never going to get anything done in terms of changing the status quo in education.”

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber backed the reform bill that would have given principals more hiring and budget control, and redefined the roles of the school board and superintendent.

BRAC president Adam Knapp said ahead of the session that the bill could have quelled the desire to create the city of St. George by responding to concerns raised about inadequate schools.

The St. George incorporation effort was born of the failed attempts to create a breakaway school district in the southeast part of the parish.

Now, Knapp said, it’s up to the school system to respond to “this great crisis that faces the community.” He said school system officials have done little to acknowledge their role in the proposed city of St. George.

“We are almost left with the sense that the school system is willing to sacrifice the structure and good of the whole city-parish rather than change themselves,” Knapp said.

David Tatman, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board president, said the school board’s role is to focus on improving student achievement. It’s not the board’s role to address the St. George issues facing the parish, he said.

“I don’t believe it is my place to state an opinion about incorporating or not incorporating or annexation,” he said. “I’ve not gotten involved.”

He noted that his constituents are in the St. George city boundaries.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who did not respond to a phone call, has been working on his own set of reforms for the school system, some of which resemble plans in the failed BRAC bill.

Taylor’s “Blueprint for Transforming Achievement” in East Baton Rouge Parish suggests shifting more authority to principals, but doesn’t go as far as what BRAC proposed. He also proposes dividing the school system into regions called “families of schools,” with advisory councils that would contribute to decisions about instruction, principal selection, budget and school activities.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/