It started with the schools.
Four years ago, a group of concerned parents and advocates for improved public education in a middle-class suburb southeast of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began lobbying for the creation of an independent school district to break away from the city’s wasteful and poorly performing public system. The East Baton Rouge Parish public schools spend some $12,200 per student per year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, which is considerably above the national average of just over $10,000 per year, and yet the district ranks 55th of 71 school districts in academic performance. That, in a state languishing in the bottom five nationally, would seem to be the cause of mass outrage throughout the parish — and in fact it has served as the impetus for the incorporations of two suburbs in the northern part of East Baton Rouge. Those two cities, Zachary and Central, now boast public schools rated in the top five of the state’s districts and are thriving little communities with rising populations and property values.
But when the advocates of the Southeast Independent School District took their case to the Louisiana legislature, they were slimed with every epithet in the Alinsky playbook. Racists, separatists, secessionists, and segregationists — what else would one expect from a mostly white suburb trying to escape governance by a mostly black school district? And after two years of effort to bring the new ISD to life, they were told nothing would happen at the legislature until the area to be affected incorporated as a city.
And so they did.
Two years after the defeat of the independent school district, the organizers of an effort to incorporate the city of St. George in not just the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish but the entire unincorporated area to the south of Baton Rouge proper deposited the final batch of signatures on a petition with some 18,000 names on it. That number, corresponding to 25 percent of the registered voters in what would become St. George per state law, will if it holds up through the verification process trigger an election in which the local electorate could create a new city of 107,000 people.
St. George would be, overnight, Louisiana’s 5th largest city, behind New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Lafayette. It would also be Louisiana’s richest city per capita, with a median income of some $90,000 per year, and likely the most politically conservative — the area is represented at the state legislature and on the Baton Rouge Metro Council almost exclusively by Republicans, which makes sense. Voter registration in St. George departs radically from the statewide breakdown of 46 percent Democrats, 28 percent Republicans and 27 percent independents; in St. George the numbers are 42 R/32 D/26 I.
But it isn’t just conservatives in St. George who are active in trying to create the city. “About 40 percent of our supporters are Democrats,” says Lionel Rainey, the spokesman for the organizing committee. “They’re motivated by the same thing everyone else is; they want better schools for their children.”
Rainey, a media and political consultant who is fronting the St. George effort on a volunteer basis, has been involved with the movement since it was focused on an independent school district. He’s been spared little by way of negative reaction from opponents of the new city — one member of the Baton Rouge Metro Council, a Republican (by registration, if not by reputation) named John Delgado, called Rainey and his compatriots in the St. George movement “terrorists” and the “Taliban” for what he termed their efforts to break away from Baton Rouge. But the area that would be St. George is not part of Baton Rouge, and outside of the school district the city would create there would be no breaking away. St. George is, essentially, a part of East Baton Rouge Parish not in the city of Baton Rouge that is trying to be… a part of East Baton Rouge Parish not in the city of Baton Rouge.
So why the name-calling? Here’s why the new city is so interesting.
Over the past 15 years the Baton Rouge area has grown very rapidly. In 2000, metropolitan Baton Rouge had a population of 705,973; by 2013 that figure had grown to 820,159. However, during that time frame the population of East Baton Rouge Parish has been stagnant; it has gone from 412,919 in 2000 to 445,279 in 2013. The growth of the two largest neighboring parishes, Ascension and Livingston, has been both impressive and productive; middle-class families are moving to both in droves thanks to relatively good schools and little crime.
That has meant a hollowing-out of Louisiana’s capital city, to such an extent that the median white household income in East Baton Rouge Parish is some $80,000 — this for a city containing a large number of college students — and the median black household income only $30,000. Middle-class people of both races are leaving because of the bad schools and the resulting crime. And in that 15 years, the result has been that East Baton Rouge Parish is now majority-black and, while seven of 12 Metro Council seats are currently held by Republicans, it is no longer demographically feasible in most eyes that a white politician could be elected Mayor-President in next year’s election. The current holder of that office, Democrat Kip Holden, is in his third and final term. His policies — which include an average growth in parish spending of $73,000 per day since taking office — have put Baton Rouge on the familiar road all dying urban Democrat strongholds have traveled.
But if a new city in the parish containing a sizable population and commercial presence were to be successful, the march to Detroit or Baltimore might be contained.
The St. George organizers have, should their city come into being, the ability to design from scratch a 21st century school system. Thanks to the East Baton Rouge public schools being thoroughly unresponsive to the needs of the people in the unincorporated area, St. George would have perhaps less than half of the public school space needed for the 10,000 or so children living in the city. This is being put forth by opponents as an argument against St. George; in fact, it’s a wonderful opportunity for innovation. One can imagine charter operators flocking to the city in order to seize advantage.
St. George also promises a major departure from the old Industrial Age big government/patronage system of urban governance. East Baton Rouge Parish has one of the largest municipal payrolls in the country on a per-capita basis, one reason for its $800 million budget, and yet the local government is shockingly ineffective in solving problems like infrastructure, traffic, and crime. Instead, the St. George organizers want to move to a more modern model, copying the privatization of Sandy Springs, Georgia, and contracting out city services. Projections made by an independent accounting firm show a $12 million surplus in Year One of a St. George existence, though opponents have presented nearly opposite numbers and warn the new city will come with tax increases.
Most of all, though, the incorporation of St. George would send a signal that urban decline and mismanagement is not inexorable, and the choice of acceptance or flight is a false one. There are still options for the middle class to grasp in search of self-governance, and successes yet to be had.
And who knows? Maybe the old political machines would benefit from a little neighborly competition.