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This wealthy Louisiana suburb is now a city. The goal? A school system of its own

Map of City of St. George
Map created by Garrett Hazelwood using Datawrapper
/
Data provided by City of St. George
Boundaries of the City of St. George, as drawn in 2018. After a recent decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court, St. George was officially incorporated and became Louisiana's fifth largest city.

St. George was once just a well-off suburb of Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge. Now, it’s a city. But that change is just one step toward some residents’ ultimate goal: a school district of their own.

Supporters of the breakup collected enough signatures in 2019 to bring the proposal for a new city to a vote. They narrowly won the election, only to get tied up in the courts. In April, though, the Louisiana Supreme Court made the split official.

The movement for a new city started because a group of people in St. George wanted their own school system. When they couldn’t get lawmakers to support that idea on its own, creating a city became the way forward.

Organizers figure they will have more political support as a municipality than they ever could as a mere group of residents. And support matters, since a new school system ultimately requires a statewide vote.

Not all residents are on board though. Some worry their kids could get locked out of Baton Rouge’s sought-after magnet schools. Others object to the optics, and consequences: Residents in a whiter, wealthier neighborhood are breaking away from a majority-Black school district, taking their tax dollars with them.

But David Madaffari, a father of three school-age kids, thinks it’s a great idea.

“I call myself the humble, enthusiastic mouthpiece of St. George,” Madaffari says.

He isn’t the city’s official spokesperson, just a resident and longtime supporter of the movement. His kids are homeschooled, but he says if St. George creates its own school district, he wants to be a part of it.

“We can make our own school district here that’s more community-based, and the parents can have more accountability,” he says.

St. George’s actual spokesperson declined an interview. He didn’t want to talk about schools, and says plans for a new district are on hold until the city sets up its government.

Louisiana’s governor, Republican Jeff Landry, recently appointed an interim mayor, police chief and city council to lead what is now the state’s fifth-largest city. They’ll all serve until an election can be held, likely next year.

Madaffari says he didn’t consider sending his kids to the existing district, East Baton Rouge Parish Schools. The district has a “C” letter grade from the state. And he thinks it deserves an “F.”

While there are some standout schools, including the schools in St. George, test scores and graduation rates overall are low. He blames board members’ spending, new buildings in areas with low enrollment and a six-figure salary for the superintendent.

“The board, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, has had their chance,” he says. “Nothing changes and all they ever talk to us about is, ‘We need more money.’”

Dadrius Lanus serves on the local school board and represents some of the poorest parts of Baton Rouge. He says since the St. George neighborhood has good schools — schools his board runs — in his estimation the system is not failing them.

When it comes to St. George’s attempts to break away, Lanus has his own explanation. “Is it racism? I think it goes a step further than that. I think it’s classism.”

St. George’s Interim Mayor Dustin Yates, a firefighter and former teacher, told “Talk Louisiana” in May that he’s never looked at the campaign for a new school district or city that way.

“I've always thought that was something that was brought up to create division, to create controversy,” he said. “But that was never the intent and nor will it ever be the intent of the city of St. George.”

Yates pointed to nearby school districts that are among the highest rated in the state and said residents in St. George deserve the chance to create a system of schools of the same caliber.

Three times before

If St. George leaves, Baton Rouge schools will have a lot less money.

Local tax dollars often make up the biggest piece of the school funding pie. And while Baton Rouge is a poor city overall, St. George isn’t. Single family homes here can sell for over a million dollars.

Carla Powell-Lewis is president of Baton Rouge’s school board. The former district teacher has watched neighborhoods break off from the system before.

It has happened three times since a federal desegregation order — at the time, the longest in the country — was lifted in 2003. Each time, the district lost tens of millions of dollars. (Two of the three breakaway districts are now among the highest-rated systems in the state.)

If St. George leaves, it would be the largest breakaway district Baton Rouge has ever seen.

“That definitely divides the resources in half or even more,” Powell-Lewis says.

The potential for the split makes her think about what segregated schools were like before Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation.

“That major case was about equitable resources. Will we still have that available? Or are we reverting back to a time frame that none of us want to remember?”

Larger school districts allow higher and lower wealth neighborhoods to pool their resources, promoting equity. So when a more affluent suburb like St. George splits off, it usually hurts the people left behind.

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found breakaway districts across the country are part of the reason why school segregation is still so pervasive, since new districts are typically whiter and wealthier.

If the students enrolled at the seven public schools inside St. George left East Baton Rouge Parish schools, the system’s white enrollment would drop to 8%, according to a 2019 estimate. The percentage of students considered low-income, already the majority, would go up.

Powell-Lewis says in addition to the challenges of teaching a student population in a place where poverty is hyperconcentrated, the district could face other negative consequences. Great teachers could leave, especially if St. George is able to pay them more. And the school district would lose state dollars too, which are based on enrollment.

Not only that, but they’d also see increased costs per student because of the district’s existing financial obligations, like health care benefits for former employees, says Rebecca Sibilia, a policy expert who has studied the impact of breakaway schools.

“They're being squeezed from both ends. Less money, higher costs,” she says.

Sibilia, who advocates for more equitable funding systems, says one solution is to break the link between how schools are funded and how they’re governed.

She points to a handful of states that pool all of their property taxes at the state level, and then distribute them based on student, district and regional needs.

“Just because St. George wants their own schools doesn't necessarily mean that they should be able to keep their own money,” Sibilia says.

‘White supremacy rebranded’

Malika Wyche is one of nearly 100,000 people who now lives in the city of St. George. She doesn't want the new city to leave the existing school district, since it doesn’t have to. Her six-year-old feels the same way.

“She started crying. She was like, ‘I don’t want to leave my school. I want to stay in my school.’”

Wyche objects to the ideas behind the movement. She says a neighborhood shouldn’t be allowed to draw a line around itself and keep its wealth inside.

“You’re so worried about your tax dollars supporting somebody who doesn't look like you or somebody who lives far away from you, but that’s literally the way that our government runs,” she says.

Some St. George supporters have suggested people like Wyche, who don’t want to break from Baton Rouge, should just move. Wyche says for plenty of families that’s not an option. And regardless, parents need to fight, not just for their kids, but for all children.

“I got great equity in my house. I have a great interest rate. I’m not going anywhere,” she says.

But Wyche and other parents who are opposed to a breakaway school district aren’t giving East Baton Rouge schools a pass.

Just like the people pushing for St. George to have its own schools, some of the people fighting against it are also the existing district’s biggest critics. They think the system can be better. The difference is, they see a path forward together.

Wyche sees people pushing for a split as selfish. And she takes it a step further, calling the argument for local control “white supremacy rebranded.”

Madaffari, the father of three, doesn’t think that’s fair.

“If people having the right to self-determination is considered racist or, you know, classist, then there’s nothing I’m going to do to be able to convince them,” he says. “Because those are arguments built on emotion. They’re not built on principle truth.”

His truth is that St. George has the right to be its own city and create its own school district.

But there are other truths that matter more to Wyche: that breakaway districts lead to more segregated schools, fewer resources and worse outcomes for Black and low-income students.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.