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Louisiana court says mostly white enclave in Baton Rouge may secede and form its own city

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Louisiana has a new city that broke away from its capital, Baton Rouge. As Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO reports, it's called St. George, and it's wealthier and whiter.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: St. George was once just a well-off suburb.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to the City of St. George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Cheering).

JUHASZ: Leaders of the new city recently celebrated a court ruling that made its split from Baton Rouge official. David Madaffari lives in the new city of St. George.

DAVID MADAFFARI: I call myself the humble, enthusiastic mouthpiece of St. George.

JUHASZ: He isn't the city's official spokesperson, just a longtime supporter. He's a parent with three school age kids. They're homeschooled, but he says if St. George creates its own schools, he wants to be a part of it.

MADAFFARI: We can make our own school district here that's more community based. And the parents can have more accountability, more visibility with that school.

JUHASZ: The movement for St. George started because some people wanted to break away from the majority-Black school district in Baton Rouge. When they couldn't get lawmakers to support that idea on its own, creating a city became the way forward. The thinking is now they'll have more political support, which matters since a new school system ultimately requires a statewide vote.

Madaffari never considered sending his kids to the existing district, East Baton Rouge Parish Schools. The district has a C letter grade from the state. He thinks it deserves an F. He blames board member spending, new buildings in areas with low enrollment and a six-figure salary for the superintendent. While there are some standout schools, including the schools in St. George, test scores and graduation rates overall are pretty low.

MADAFFARI: Nothing changes, and all they ever talk to us about is we need more money.

JUHASZ: 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 there can sell for over $1 million.

CARLA POWELL-LEWIS: This will be the largest breakaway school district that we have in the Baton Rouge area. And so that definitely divides the resources in half or even more.

JUHASZ: Carla Powell-Lewis is president of Baton Rouge's school board. She's watched neighborhoods break off from the school district three times since a federal desegregation order was lifted two decades ago. The potential for another split makes Powell-Lewis think about what segregated schools were like before Brown v. Board of Education.

POWELL-LEWIS: 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?

JUHASZ: 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 high, since new districts are usually whiter. 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. And her 6-year-old feels the same way.

MALIKA WYCHE: She started crying. She was like, I don't want to leave my school. I want to stay at my school.

JUHASZ: Witch says a neighborhood shouldn't be allowed to draw a line around itself and keep its wealth inside.

WYCHE: 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.

JUHASZ: Some St. George supporters have suggested people like Wyche who don't want to break from Baton Rouge schools should just move. She plans to stay and fight.

WYCHE: I got great equity in my house. I got a great interest rate. I'm not going anywhere.

JUHASZ: Wyche sees people pushing for a split as selfish and calls the argument for local control white supremacy rebranded. Madaffari doesn't think that's fair.

MADAFFARI: If people having the right to self-determination is considered racist or classist, then there's nothing I'm going to do to be able to convince you because those are arguments built on emotion. They're not built on principle or truth. And the truth still matters.

JUHASZ: 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 and fewer resources for Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in Baton Rouge, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "A HORSE NAMED ZELDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aubri Juhasz
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.