On Oct. 20, organizers of the effort to incorporate the city of St. George submitted to the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters the fruits of their labor over these last nine months—a petition with some 18,200 signatures requesting a vote on the controversial incorporation issue.
One day later, the state Department of Education released its latest report card of school performance scores. Though East Baton Rouge Parish Schools as a whole got a solid C—a score of 81.3, which is 1% higher than the 2013 score of 80.3—the number of failing schools in the parish actually doubled this year.
The timing, though purely coincidental, could not have been more fortuitous for the St. George folks, who were able to point to the report card results as yet another reminder of what is really behind their whole movement.
“The rhetoric we’ve heard over the last year is we’re better together and that things are getting better,” says St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey. “Well, now we get the report, and not only are things not getting better, but they’re getting astronomically worse.
Statistics being what they are, one can twist the data to make the case that schools are actually getting better, at least as a whole. The East Baton Rouge Parish Schools central office, for instance, issued a press release crowing that more than half the district’s schools increased their performance scores, while 18 schools saw improvements to their letter grades, both of which factored into that overall district increase of 1 point.
“This consistent academic improvement over time is a clear indication that our instructional programs and educational strategies are working to increase student performance,” said Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr., in the release.
As Rainey points out, however, it’s equally true that eight schools saw their scores fall from a D to an F, bringing to 16 the number of failing schools in the parish—nearly 20% of the total. Worse still, 27 schools received a D, which means more than half the 84 schools in the EBR school district—a whopping 51%—have a performance score of D or F.
That’s not acceptable, and it’s just the kind of ammunition the St. George supporters need, as they transition from a petition drive to a political campaign.
When, precisely, that political campaign will start remains unclear at this point. Rainey says it won’t begin until after the Registrar of Voters has certified as valid all the signatures on the petition, a process expected to take several weeks. In the meantime, an attorney who has worked for the city on this and the related issue of annexation has vowed to file a suit to prevent the election from taking place.
Mary Olive Pierson, who defended the city in Woody Jenkins’ legal challenge to the Mall of Louisiana annexation, says she will fight the petition drive on a couple of different fronts—whether she does it on behalf of the city-parish as a contract attorney, or as a private citizen concerned about the future of Baton Rouge.
Pierson says she will challenge the provision of the law that states only people in the boundaries of the proposed city can vote. She says she will also argue that St. George organizers have not yet outlined sufficient governmental plans.
LET IT DIE AT THE POLLS?
Whatever the legal merits of the suit she intends to bring, you can be sure that efforts to block a referendum will get the St. George crowd fired up even more than do the school performance scores. Incorporation advocates may not have much chance of actually winning an election but they believe fervently that they have followed the law, played by the rules and deserve the right to vote on creating a new city with its own schools.
To deny them that right will have long-term consequences and further polarize the community. It would be far better to legitimately campaign against the movement and let it fail at the polls on its own merits—which, pollsters suggest, it likely will—rather than trying to kill it off now.
Not that there are really any good options.
If the St. George vote is allowed to go forward and somehow passes, then, theoretically, the district can remake the schools in the image of small, neighborhood community schools that have proven successful in places like Zachary and Central. But the city-parish as a whole will be weaker, and the EBR school system will be hopelessly compromised.
If a legal challenge prevents the issue from ever showing up on a ballot, St. George supporters will continue to harbor resentment toward the city and what they perceive to be the downtown power brokers that call the shots. Some of them will simply leave. Others will make it a point to defeat any parish-wide initiative that comes up in the future.
Meanwhile, the school system will remain broken.
If the vote is allowed to take place and it fails, there will still be a lot of bitterness and flight from the parish, though no one will be able to accuse the city of trampling their constitutional rights to a vote. Also, there will still be the problems within the schools.
In other words, there’s no easy way out of the mess that the St. George incorporation effort has become.
Even if the movement, in its current form, dies down or fails at the polls, the recent school performance scores remind us that the issue driving it has not gone away and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.