In a yuletide season ostensibly devoted to harmony and togetherness, the big news in Baton Rouge these days is a drive among numerous activists to further divide East Baton Rouge Parish’s local government and public school system.
That’s a daunting prospect, and parish residents shouldn’t support the idea unless there are compelling reasons to do so.
But so far, the proposal to develop a new city of St. George and a companion school district seems more like a brainstorm than a coherent roadmap for the parish’s future. Given that reality, we believe residents should ask lots of questions before embracing the St. George concept.
Leaders of the effort want to create St. George from unincorporated areas south of Baton Rouge’s city limits. The area includes many of the parish’s most affluent neighborhoods and two of its biggest generators of sales tax revenue, the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe. The breakaway movement parallels a move to develop a separate school district for the St. George area. But the logistics of the new school district seem to be a moving target, as if supporters of the effort are making up key elements as they go along. This kind of improvisation suggests to us that passion might be overtaking hard thought, and that’s a big danger for a community that needs to be thinking strategically about how it will thrive in coming decades.
In June, supporters of the new school district successfully lobbied the Legislature to approve a Southeast Baton Rouge School District, which generally extends from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines. The district exists only on paper because it lacks a funding mechanism. Now, only six months after getting lawmakers to approve the district boundaries, which is no small thing, supporters want to radically expand the district and build six new schools, including a new high school. The shift suggests a concept that, even after months of debate, sometimes appears as if it’s being scribbled on the back of a napkin.
Additionally, supporters of the new school district and the new city of St. George have argued that the breakaways could be funded without raising taxes.
We’re deeply skeptical of those claims, and we believe residents should be, too. After residents of Zachary and Central created new school districts, they approved new taxes to build new schools. School pride in Zachary and Central has come with the understanding that independent school districts have a price tag.
Experience tells us that policy choices almost invariably involve costs. Who will pay those costs, how high should they be, and is the price worth it?
Those questions should rest at the heart of discussions about plans for St. George and a related new school district.
St. George’s supporters need to answer those questions in a clear and compelling way. Otherwise, this movement will continue to look like an exercise in expedience, not enlightened policy.