In Baton Rouge, the fight for a new school district shows segregation isn’t in the past
By James Bennett
Traci Coleman and her daughter Andrea don’t want to see a new school district. (ABC News: James Bennett)
Traci Coleman and Tracy Barker are mothers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One grew up hearing stories of segregated schooling from her parents. The other did not.
But both mothers — one black, one white — fear for their children’s schooling futures, should a divisive plan to create a new city and school district here go ahead.
In Louisiana’s capital, the push to create a new city of predominantly white suburbs is reopening old wounds in a town where painful memories of segregation linger.
Proponents bill themselves as a community yearning for better education, but opponents see something sinister.
They’re trying “to keep the blacks out of this area,” says Ms Coleman, who is African-American, collecting her 13-year-old daughter Andrea from Woodlawn school in a middle-class suburb south-east of Louisiana’s capital.
“It is racist.”
The Barker family are supporting the campaign to keep the city of Baton Rouge united. (ABC News: James Bennett)
Ms Barker’s family lives inside the zone of the proposed new city, but her 10-year-old son Logan’s academic extension school is outside it, meaning he’d have to move.
“I don’t understand why they’ve got to incorporate a new city,” she says.
A “Better Together” sign sits in their front yard. Two houses directly across the well-to-do street sport St George signs.
Logan’s father Branden shakes his head.
“This butting heads, this ‘us-versus-them’ — I don’t know how we can grow as a society, with this much animosity towards the other,” he laments.
A Baton Rouge protest produced one of the iconic images of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Reuters: Jonathan Bachman)
A town split in two
Baton Rouge is no stranger to racial tension. The city, where 50 per cent of the population is black, is regularly listed as one of the most segregated in the country.
In July 2016, the city was rocked by protests after Alton Sterling was shot dead at close range by two white police officers.
The iconic photo of a protester staring down riot police in the city captured the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tension between minorities and police.
In July 2016, Baton Rouge was rocked by protests after Alton Sterling was shot dead at close range by two white police officers. (Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)
Today, the East Baton Rouge Parish School district administers roughly 30,000 students, spread between Baton Rouge’s declining industrial north, inner city and increasingly prosperous suburban south.
It sits in the bottom third of Louisiana’s district rankings. The state is among America’s worst performing.
The campaigners petitioning for a secession vote mention nothing of race, describing themselves as grassroots citizens who are dissatisfied “by the quality and cost of services” in East Baton Rouge Parish, the local government area home to the city.
Their main objection is to redistribution of the property taxes collected here and spread across the parish.
“We represent more than two-thirds of the parish’s tax base, but only about one-third of its expenditures,” the organisers’ website states.
They plan to incorporate a breakaway city, St George. If successful, they’d gain control over taxes and increase their chances of creating a new, separate school district. They argue a single district can’t possibly cater for such diversity of need.
Opponents fear the drain of students and funds could gut the district’s ailing public system. For those who remain they say, the result will be diminished educational opportunity and 90 per cent of those students are non-white.
‘There are schools I wouldn’t send kids to’
Spurred by successful secessions among outlying communities to the north, residents in the south-east began agitating for a school district of their own in 2012.
When that failed, the St George campaign — who did not return the ABC’s requests for comment — changed tack, seeking to bolster their case by creating their own city first.
“We just want to pay our fair share of Parish expenses, and then make decisions on our own for things that affect us locally,” St George spokesman Andrew Murrell told a town hall meeting in June.
A previous attempt failed, after authorities discovered forged signatures among those required for a ballot.
Now, as authorities count and check the new signatures, each side paints a picture of much at stake.
“There are a lot of schools here I wouldn’t send kids to,” said one supporter, Robert Pecue, waiting to collect his granddaughter from Woodlawn Elementary.
“I’m not saying that because of the colour of the people or anything like that,” he added.
“But it’s just, it’s a lower income school, I think the teachers are underpaid.”
Baton Rouge’s Mayor, Sharon Weston Broome, has stopped short of labelling the push racist, but pointedly describes the demographics as “telling”.
“They carved out a city they wanted to see,” she told the ABC. Critics have called the proposed map “gerrymander” for omitting low-income apartment blocks on its fringe.
A map on the St George campaign website has a winding boundary that’s drawn accusations of gerrymandering. (Supplied: Google Maps)
Anti-secession group Better Together says if the new school district is created along the proposed boundaries there’d be 1,374 students without a place to go to school.
“They’re students who attend a St George school, but live outside the proposed St George area,” says M.E. Cormier, who runs the local branch of Capital Area United Way, one of America’s most prominent welfare organisations.
For almost a century following slavery’s abolition in 1865, blacks in southern states lived segregated lives — kept out of white neighbourhoods, churches and schools under a doctrine termed “separate but equal”.
The US Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional when a Kansas father successfully challenged his daughter’s exclusion from white elementary schools, in the celebrated 1954 Brown v Board of Education case. A decade later, the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned segregation.
George Bell was one of the first African-American children to attend a white school in Baton Rouge (ABC News: James Bennett )
In Baton Rouge, 59-year-old George Bell was among the first African-American children to attend a white school.
His classmates initially referred to him as “the coloured boy” or “the black kid”, he says.
But while the name-calling ebbed, the opportunities he enjoyed at the better-resourced school changed his life.
“It laid the foundation for me to go on and do what I do today,” the musician and former hospital administrator says.
“Opportunities to work together, to play together, they forced us to put away our differences.”
He now runs the local branch of Capital Area United Way, one of America’s most prominent welfare organisations.
Mr Bell says he understands St George’s point of view but warns of consequences “if we don’t address the school issue”.
George Bell runs the local branch of Capital Area United Way, one of America’s most prominent welfare organisations. (ABC News: James Bennett)
“Our inability to create healthy, vibrant communities in North Baton Rouge will produce problems for South Baton Rouge if we’re not careful — if we don’t do the right things to address the school issue, help education, public education especially — raise the level of performance so our kids have a fighting chance.”
He talks about the gradual shift in wealth from Baton Rouge’s once-bustling industrial north to its suburban south, which he says has coincided with increasingly individualistic thinking in American politics.
“You have that as a backdrop for all if this,” he says, paraphrasing the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump’s message to voters.
“Government’s not working for me, I’m willing to buck the system … and to hell with the rest of folks who may be affected.”
“If St George is successful, then it dilutes the tax base that is available, and in doing so, that would weaken the remaining schools that are left, so it creates an even wider gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
A clash between two American values
Opponents fear if unchecked, secessions threaten to exacerbate the economic and racial divides America’s Civil Rights movement fought to overcome.
“Fracturing of school districts,” says education researcher Rebecca Sibilia, means “fracturing of our society.”
Ms Sibilia says the St George push, and others she documented, gathered steam as the Tea Party movement re-asserted the primacy of local control in American life.
St George is one of 71 attempted secessions since 2000, which Ms Sibilia documented in a 2017 investigation. Of these, 47 succeeded.
Ms Sibilia portrays them as a clash between two of America’s founding values — individual liberty versus justice for all.
“This is not just a story of neighbours divided in a self-interested society,” she writes, characterising the secession trend as reflecting “a broken system of laws that fracture, and of policies that have failed to protect the most vulnerable”.
Ms Sibilia says the impact of school district secession is so skewed, it undermines America’s 20th century progress towards equality.
“There is a notable disparity between races, incomes, median family incomes, students living below the poverty line,” she tells the ABC.
“These are the wealthy pulling themselves out of less wealthy areas. You have to ask, why?”
Petitioners are now confident they have enough signatures to force a special election on St George’s creation, despite the wishes of residents like Branden and Tracy Barker. (ABC News: James Bennett)
A special election looms
Petitioners are now confident they have enough signatures to force a special election on St George’s creation.
The timing is uncertain, and further legal action is likely.
State law only entitles registered voters within the proposed area to vote on its incorporation, something that further angers opponents, who say it is unfair that those likely adversely affected have no say.
For those who’ve lived Louisiana’s segregated past, the prospect of a divided future is depressing.
“It’s easy to fold our arms and say it’s not my problem,” George Bell says. “But when that same kid grows up and robs you in a parking lot of a shopping centre, or carjacks you, then it becomes everybody’s problem.”