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For outsiders to it, St. George opposition driven by greed

It’s easy to understand why opponents inside and outside of the proposed city of St. George and of a school district built around it likely following its incorporation so strenuously lobby against these: greed.

St. George would include most of the unincorporated area of East Baton Rouge Parish, which historically has been a net generator of tax dollars compared to services used. By contrast, the city of Baton Rouge has become a net debtor in comparing expenses to tax dollars generated. The same relationship to a different degree has been the case for comparing the same areas for school district purposes, although any separation of these at some point will involve construction of new facilities that may end up requiring tax increases to fund the new St. George school district, although it may well avoid them in that the present entire district itself presently has no bonded indebtedness.

Although these units are separate matters, they are linked in the minds of parish residents because the school breakaway idea came prior to the new city incorporation idea, where the latter is seen as a way of facilitating the former. While the Legislature has already approved of the separate district, it has not created a way to fund it; advocates of it hope that creation of the city, accomplished by getting a petition calling for an incorporation election of a quarter of registered voters among those living in this unincorporated area with simple majority approval, will spur the Legislature to finish the job by amending the existing district (which does not conform to the boundaries of the proposed municipality) and enabling the funding.

And it’s because they’re linked in minds that some in the area with children in school oppose the change. Seeing the process as seamless, they fear approving the city will cause their children to lose access to programs for higher-performing students in certain subject areas already extant in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. It’s a form of greed, albeit channeled in a salutary direction.

But if things progress to that point of separate districts, this fear probably is overblown because of the economics of government financing. Although the data publicly aren’t available to confirm this, likely the unincorporated area disproportionately sends children to EBRPSS magnet schools, programs, etc. Also, around a quarter of all students in the system come from the St. George proposed boundaries. Their removal would spark a crisis in the EBRPSS that could be resolved only two ways.

One could be downsizing – but suddenly all of these teachers in the gifted and talented area would become available to be hired by St. George, which probably could build such programs back to half of the present size. However, given the large amount of slack resources that would materialize by sucking tens of thousands of children out of the system including several hundred in high-achieving programs, the EBRPSD probably would try to make a deal with St. George (following, for example, the arrangement of the Patrick Taylor Science and Technology Academy in Jefferson Parish that educates students regionally) to have the new district pay for their education in the old – not that any of its officials would admit this now, but that’s the smart move in this eventuality. Either way, disruption of accelerated education is minimal.

Still, city formation and district separation are legally unrelated matters, which is of small comfort to those outside of the proposed city because greed drives them stemming from the repercussions of taking out of the revenue stream St. George sales and property taxes. If the removal of net payers occurs, one estimate has what’s left down a net $53 million or nearly 7 percent of the total parish budget. In the minds of the outsiders (who comprise most of the organized opposition to St. George), this means higher taxes to them (even though the more ideologically-flexible among them should realize right-sizing local government provides an alternative solution).

Proponents inside the district point out that a $14 million deficit is a better estimate, because of planned cooperative service agreements. Opponents outside the district point out this is no guarantee. Both are correct.

If using the last new city in the area, Central, as an example, for its first three years it went with such arrangements. But then it turned to privatization of most city services – and has become a spectacular financial success story as a result, with no new taxes and building up a very healthy budget reserve through annual large surpluses. St. George organizers hope a new city would do the same. Thus, St. George would pay to the parish for these – but not forever, although this should provide the parish enough opportunity to make the policy changes necessary for that future that should minimize any deficit resulting from the new incorporation and eventual lapsing of service contracts.

So, inside the district with linkage of the city and schools in mind, some opponents want to hang on to what they see as superior schooling for their children – even as many other area residents see a separate district doing a better job for their children who aren’t in accelerated programs. Outside, some opponents fear a financially adverse impact that they’ll have to pay more for – regardless of the fact that inside the district residents likely will pay no more than they do presently but by incorporation create a local government with the capacity to set the stage for a better quality of life than under the present arrangement.

Sure, these are competing interests, yet that is the nature of a representative democracy and to expect people from deciding public policy in a way that deliberately caters to the self-interest of others while sacrificing their own is unrealistic. But what’s interesting in the case of St. George is that many opponents, especially from the outside, articulate a holier-than-thou attitude that asserts there’s some kind of obligation to prevent the new city’s formation for the good of the entire community, whatever that may be.

Do not be fooled by this hypocrisy. Formation of St. George challenges these people’s ideological worldview by forcing a clash between their beliefs about the scope and purpose of government and with reality, a conflict they’d rather avoid by forcing others to pay those costs. In other words, greed.

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