Annexations are shrinking proposed city of St. George

The Advocate

Since it was unveiled 17 months ago, the proposed city of St. George has steadily shrunk. Big commercial properties such as the Mall of Louisiana and L’Auberge Casino have been annexed one by one into the city of Baton Rouge.

In the process, the tax base for the would-be city has deteriorated to the point where opponents argue that tax increases are inevitable, an assertion St. George supporters hotly dispute.

The proposed St. George school district, however, has not changed.

Envisioned as geographically larger than the city of the same name, St. George school boundaries still include the mall and the casino as well as Celtic Studios, Costco, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and other newly annexed properties — not to mention the millions of dollars in tax revenue they generate.

Retaining these large taxpayers greatly improves the finances of the proposed St. George school district. It lessens, though does not eliminate, concerns that a new public school district means new taxes.

The school boundaries from the beginning have included areas that were never part of the proposed city of St. George. These include Cedarcrest, Parkview and Wedgewood subdivisions, areas within the city limits of Baton Rouge. Those subdivisions are also home to four of 12 public schools that St. George hopes to inherit from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

If the St. George movement is successful, some parish residents and property owners will pay the city of Baton Rouge for fire, police and other municipal services but pay schools taxes to the new St. George school system.

Presented with this possibility Friday, Julie Collins, a spokeswoman for Pinnacle Entertainment, the parent company of L’Auberge, said the issue is an interesting one worthy of further study, but she would not comment.

“We don’t really talk to the ‘if’ questions,” she said. “It’s not good to speculate on things.”

The first step, a referendum to incorporate St. George, could go to voters as early as May 2. The parish Registrar of Voters Office is verifying an estimated 18,000 signatures and is on track to finish by the end of February. Expected litigation could still delay the incorporation vote to a later date.

If the incorporation is successful, supporters will turn their attention to the Legislature to try to win passage of a new St. George school district. In that fight, municipal boundaries and annexations won’t be legal obstacles for St. George backers. The key obstacles are winning a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate, and then a majority vote of voters statewide and in East Baton Rouge Parish before the St. George school system can open its doors.

Attempts in 2012 and 2013 to create a much smaller breakaway Southeast Community School District in southeast Baton Rouge earned legislative majority support but fell short of the two-thirds threshold needed to get on the ballot.

A fight over a St. George school district is not likely to reach the State Capitol until 2016 at the earliest, after Louisiana voters elect a new governor and a new Legislature.

Although legally the Legislature is not bound to make St. George school boundaries match those of the city of St. George, St. George opponents argue there is a good chance that political considerations will force that to happen.

Brod Bagert is an organizer for Together Baton Rouge, a grass-roots citizens group that has members who are part of the anti-St. George initiative, Better Together. Bagert released an analysis Nov. 1 that suggested St. George may need to build as many as a dozen schools to meet demand, double the number St. George supporters have proposed.

That analysis is predicated on the idea that St. George schools will have the same boundaries as the city, because creating a St. George school district bigger than the city would be a difficult sell to the Legislature.

Carving up cities to create new school districts might give lawmakers pause, Bagert said.

“I think there would be more concern for setting a precedent for other parts of the state,” he said.

Bagert admitted that predictions, given so many variables, are inherently difficult.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a St. George opponent, said having a school district so at odds with the city could be a problem.

“That would be a bone of contention for me,” she said.

A common misconception is that the boundaries of the city of St. George would be identical to a St. George school district. It’s shared even by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the House Education Committee and a supporter of the earlier Southeast breakaway legislation.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Carter said Friday.

In an analysis of the financial impact of St. George commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and released in late 2013, LSU economics professor Jim Richardson also assumed that the proposed city and school district would have the same boundaries. His team had a good excuse: The St. George school map had not been released yet; it came out days later.

Richardson’s analysis, however, does assume that the big taxpayers such as the mall and the casino will be paying into St. George public schools. He found that the proposed St. George school district would net $11,686 per child, or $2,000 more than the per-child revenue that now goes to the parish school system. The parish’s school system’s estimated per-pupil allotment, however, would shrink by an estimated $765 a child.

The strong financial cushion provided by the mall, the casino and the other big taxpayers should give St. George money, perhaps enough to build the six new schools south of I-10 organizers say they will build. It’s an area home to an alternative school and a charter school, but no neighborhood public schools.

“We think that there is more than enough to bond out projects,” said Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for St. George.

While the Committee for the Incorporation of St. George has released a one-page municipal budget, it has not released a school budget, so it’s hard to gauge how readily the group can stick to its no-new-tax prediction.

Building even six new schools won’t be cheap.

In December, accounting firm Faulk & Winkler analyzed St. George finances, like Richardson, commissioned by BRAF and BRAC. The firm calculated that the six schools St. George contemplates building would cost more than $140 million, which works out to about $10.2 million a year to pay off 20-year construction bonds. Those figures don’t include the cost of buying land, development and design or furnishing those schools.

And none of these scenarios assume increased demand. Central and Zachary have been compelled to pass higher school taxes since they started, in part to handle the increasing enrollment their systems have attracted.

The St. George school maps are similar to those of Baker, Central and Zachary, in that all of them have school boundaries different from their city boundaries. Baker and Central’s school boundaries are similar to their cities. The Zachary school district, however, is much larger geographically than the Zachary city boundaries.

St. George’s school map variance is a legacy of the earlier fight over the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System, a district that would have extended from the Interstate 10/12 split, south of I-12 and east of I-10 to the parish lines.

After the 2013 defeat of that proposed district, supporters decided to follow the example of Central and create their own city as a way of generating enough legislative support to win a companion school district.

The proposed new city, announced in September 2013, was dubbed St. George. It was much bigger than the earlier Southeast Community school district. It included unincorporated parts of the parish, specifically areas served by the St. George and Eastside fire departments.

The proposed St. George city map left out a few subdivisions that had been part of the proposed Southeast Community School System. The proposed St. George school map added those subdivisions, in the process taking in areas that are within the city limits of Baton Rouge.

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