Might the whole effort to create a new city in southern East Baton Rouge Parish really be just to overcome the last resistance now cracking to create a breakaway school district there?
From the beginning, organizers of the effort to create the city of St. George, which would be comprised of unincorporated land, have said this is a way to facilitate formation of a district separate from the East Baton Rouge Parish School District. Within the past couple of weeks, at a gathering of area leaders, a couple of them reiterated that very point.
Historically, the state never has had a school district that was not coterminous with the boundaries of a parish or municipality, and the last one to come to life, Central Community School System, did so only after the separate city of Central was formed. In order to have a separate district in education, the Legislature must enable it by statute, and the Constitution must be amended to provide a funding mechanism. On its second try earlier this year, the enabling legislation was passed, but it cannot operate until funded.
Organizers have taken some opponents at their word that if it takes a municipality to form district around (which would have different boundaries than the one already in law), then that’s what they’ll do. But now some opponents either are backtracking on this impression (among the state legislators of the bunch, many turning hypocrite after having voted for the district’s formation) or revealing that they opposed the district idea all along, stating that city creation will not influence their views on the school district. This includes state legislators with votes here more crucial than ever given the two-thirds requirement in the Legislature to put up an amendment; the last attempt fell 12 votes short of the supermajority requirement in the House of Representatives.
Yet in doing so, they follow and old political maxim that political forces by their rhetoric and actions tell us what they really fear: in this case, the incorporation more than the new district in that they insist incorporation won’t get supporters closer to having a district. If they did not fear the new city more than the new district, there would be no reason for them to telegraph the way they would vote on the district.
They react this way because expanding the area of conflict threatens the power and privilege of more political elites than just those on the EBR Parish School District and provides an opportunity to set those groups against each other in terms forcing decisions about cutting losses. By manufacturing a scenario for those elites not connected to the EBRPSD where they can risk much more by continuing to fight incorporation in order to stave off creation in losing both than by capitulating on the creation question and saving territory, supporters can play off this increased leverage to make more attainable their initial goal of district operation.
As the organizers have posed rhetorically, it is easier to get 20,000 signatures (a bit more than needed to get an incorporation vote in the area) than 70 House votes. To the EBR elite, this reality is the doomsday weapon that more of them than not, even if they do not admit so publicly, think would trigger a successful plebiscite. And given those odds, they would rather “sacrifice” the school district (which as presently constituted is smaller in land area) than “lose” it all.
Organizers surely realize this, and this points to the appropriate strategy. Before next year’s legislative session begins they probably will hit the magic number of around 18,000 signatures to call the election for St. George establishment. When they have that amount in petitions in their hands, they should announce that and that they will continue to gather more for good measure – but that if the Legislature acts to pass the necessary amendment to put it up to a vote next fall this session, they will halt efforts and not turn in the petitions. Further, knowing that some signatories do see the city as the primary need, they can pledge to turn them over eventually to any group that wishes to use them – but only after the amendment has faced a vote (there is no time limit on the signature-gathering process) and pledge to work against future incorporation vote that could come from those petitions. But if the Legislature fails on amending, then they pull the trigger and dump the petitions off at the Secretary of State’s office.
Such an offer probably is one that can’t be refused. While school district elites get hung out to dry, others risk nothing with acceptance. Organizers can facilitate this by reasserting what they have wanted all along is a vote on the district and proving it by promising they will try to help defeat any subsequent incorporation effort regardless of amendment passage. This makes for the clincher that a deal of this nature allows opponents the faint hope that they could have it all, on the slim chance that statewide voters would turn down the constitutional change (unlikely as these kinds of amendments typically elicit deferral from voters outside the affected area, thinking that if a majority in the affected area wants something, who are they to veto that).
Of course, not yet being at that point organizers would not want to admit to this, because they’re still building their doomsday device with the help of some who want it genuinely used for its intended purpose. Yet once that is done, they can argue convincingly it was better to go for the sure thing and achieving smaller goals, and also point out incorporation movements still are free to form and try to go for the whole hog, although without their help.
Just as one political maxim interprets opponents’ behavior on this issue, another tells us about its supporters: if political actors keep saying they want to do something, if the opportunity arises they’re probably going to try to do it. In East Baton Rouge, for those outside of the city disappointed in the choices made by ruling political elites, it’s always been about the quality of schools. If as part of the incorporation saga they can coax a deal for the chance to put education in their own hands in exchange for jettisoning the rest, they’ll take it.