St. George residents want schools control, not city

A majority of the people who live within the boundaries of the proposed city of St. George would prefer to take control of public schools in the south Baton Rouge area without creating a new city, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Fifty-six percent of respondents favor that approach while 29 percent said incorporating St. George was the best way to create a school district. Nine percent weren’t for either approach and 5 percent didn’t know.

The poll also found 72 percent of St. George area respondents consider the East Baton Rouge Parish school system “not so good” or “bad.” Only 22 percent of those responding rated the school system as “very good” or “good.”

The results were more evenly divided on whether to grant “autonomy to neighborhoods” so the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board “cannot make decisions about how neighborhood schools are run.”

Fifty-three percent of respondents were favorable or very favorable to the idea. Meanwhile, 43 percent viewed the idea somewhat unfavorably or very unfavorably. Six percent said they didn’t know.

About 36 percent of respondents listed education and schools as the most important issue facing their corner of the parish. Crime was a distant second, with 16 percent of respondents describing it as their most important issue.

The telephone poll by the national polling firm Penn Schoen Berland was conducted Jan. 27-28 among 405 likely voters in precincts within the boundaries of the proposed city of St. George in the southern parts of East Baton Rouge Parish.

The poll has a margin of error of almost 5 percent.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which opposes the petition drive to incorporate St. George, is seeking legislative approval for a series of changes to public education in East Baton Rouge Parish in hopes of heading off the St. George effort. That package of legislation was filed April 1.

Chamber spokeswoman Lauren Hatcher said BRAC is releasing the poll results to counter a statement made by state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, an opponent of the chamber-developed legislation. Smith has said the chamber’s proposed legislation would do nothing to stop the St. George movement.

BRAC’s legislative proposals, among other things, call for more local control of schools by increasing the authority given to principals. They stop short of creating any more independent school districts.

Proposals to create a new Southeast Baton Rouge school district fell just short in 2012 and 2013.

The LSU Public Policy Research Lab conducted a poll of prospective St. George residents in late October and early November and found a plurality of 40 percent supported incorporation, while 35 percent opposed it and 25 percent were unsure.

The operations manager of the research lab, Michael Climek, said the chamber poll is not comparable with his poll because people were asked about their opposition or support of St. George only in the context of the school system.

“The data, as it’s currently presented, does not say ‘Residents don’t want a new city’ due to the fact that a support question for a new city, literally, was not asked,” Climek said.

Climek also cautioned the chamber poll was conducted three months ago, adding “There has been much movement on the St. George issue since then.”

One chamber-developed legislative proposal calls for providing more local control of schools by shifting power away from the School Board and superintendent. Principals would be given sweeping new authority through short term management contracts to control their budgets, recruit and hire personnel, and hire support services outside of the district’s Central Office.

Another chamber-developed legislative proposal would shrink the School Board from 11 to seven members with six elected from districts and one elected at large.

On Monday, the Senate deferred action temporarily on legislation to increase the powers of principals. A similar bill is still being debated by the House Education Committee. Meanwhile, the House fell two votes short of approving a bill to shrink the size of the School Board.

A spokesman for the St. George effort, Lionel Rainey III, said the chances of BRAC’s legislation passing are in doubt, and the proposals ignore the evolution of the St. George debate.

“This began as a fight for public education but has grown to represent much more than that,” Rainey said. “It’s grown to represent the people’s right to self-determination. Pass or fail, the residents of the southern unincorporated portion of East Baton Rouge Parish deserve the right to vote.”

The release of the poll Tues day included responses to just five questions and did not contain crosstabs or other supplementary data. Hatcher said pollsters asked more questions, but the chamber is releasing only a portion of the poll at this time.

Seventy-five percent of the poll respondents were white, 19 percent were black, and 6 percent were from other racial and ethnic groups. About 40 percent of respondents were age 18 to 49, 34 percent were age 50 to 64, and 25 percent were age 65 and older. The gender balance of those polled was roughly even, with a few more women than men responding.

The 75 percent to 19 percent racial breakdown in the poll is slightly less racially diverse than the 70 percent white, 23 percent black breakdown of St. George residents revealed in the 2010 U.S. census.