The great divide – Meet the strong personalities driving the St. George debate

For some within the boundaries of a proposed new city in East Baton Rouge Parish, the plans of the Committee for the City of St. George and Local Schools for Local Children—the group promoting a new school district and backing the committee—are a glimmer of hope for a brighter educational future for their children.

But for others, the concept of a separate City of St. George with its own governing bodies and school system feels like a threat to Baton Rouge’s efforts to improve crime prevention, education and infrastructure. (See sidebar for how we got to this point.)

As local media coverage of the debate grows, the mess of numbers and angry quotes can serve to mask the personal motives on all sides of the conflict. And in the confusion, something important to solving these problems is lost: the average citizen’s ability to understand how and why these factions arrived at this point, and on such hostile terms, too. The flame of conviction that drives these civic leaders to keep pushing toward their goals can get lost in the smoke.

While there are more than two sides, and two opinions, to this debate, 225 takes a look at the personalities and purposes of six locals in various stages of being for or against the City of St. George.

Norman Browning, Committee for the City of St. George
Norman Browning is used to having a captive audience. The 60-year-old Baton Rouge native tends to stand or pace when he’s explaining something, making full use of the body-language arsenal he acquired in 15 years of teaching at Woodlawn High School. Every spoken bullet-point ends with a pointed finger and a stare; the wholepackage propelled by one arched eyebrow.

“When you have community schools in an independent school district, the parents get to know the teachers,” he explains, tapping two fingers on the table with each inflection. “So when Johnny comes home and says, ‘The teacher’s pickin’ on me,’ you’re gonna say, ‘I know that teacher. Let’s call him up, Johnny.'”

Though he left Southeastern with a degree in Education, Browning spent most of his post-military adulthood working in pharmaceutical sales outside the state, and later returned to Baton Rouge.

He’s always had a passion for coaching, however, and that’s why he took Woodlawn High School up on the offer when they approached him about a volunteer coaching position upon his return.

“At some point I was sitting in the bleachers and realized I had coached both teams that were playing on the field,” he adds with a beaming smile.

The skill set involved in his tangible passion for coaching sports seems to resonate with his perspective on what’s wrong with the parish’s public school system, the ultimate driver for his support for a city of St. George.

“The students are running the schools,” he says, “not the principals, and not the teachers.”

He goes on to detail how, in the present condition of Woodlawn, a student can “get literally nose-to-nose” with a teacher to “curse them out,” and the student will only get sent home for the day with no further disciplinary action. “When do we begin to hold the students, and the parents of these students, accountable for this behavior?” he asks.

Joshua Hoffpauir, Committee for the City of St. George
Sitting just across the table from Browning is Joshua Hoffpauir. An architect by trade, the 37-year-old Crowley native comes off as the yin to Browning’s yang, most obviously in his oratory style. He doesn’t pace, barely ever fidgets, and does not employ common tactics of persuasion, even when given ample opportunity.

His involvement in the St. George movement goes back three or four years, he says, adding that his wife told him to “get a hobby” around that time. He perceives his role in the group to be the grounding force of logic and reason, and attributes this forte to his “architect’s thought process.”

But what exactly does such a thought process entail? How do architects think?

“It’s not very structured,” he begins, then recants: “Well, it’s structured at a certain point—just in the building aspect—but the aspect of forming ideas and conceptualizing, it’s very abstract. It’s a creative process; you have to bury yourself away. And architecture school will consume you.”

Aftergraduating from architecture school, Hoffpauir moved to Vail, Co., to do high-end residential design for an architecture firm. It was a stark change of landscape compared to his comparatively flat hometown of Crowley, and it was there in the Rockies that he discovered the joy in “blowing up the side of a mountain to build a house.”

Fun stuff, he says.

Now operating his own firm in Baton Rouge, he’s a husband and a father of three—two of whom are twins—and the only mountain in front of him is the one he sees to be blocking his children from a decent public education.

He would love to send his kids to the school in their neighborhood of Westminster, but the school’s performance grade of “F” has forced him and his wife to look for private options within their budget.

Citing the mental burden of future high school tuition bills, Hoffpauir claims his only options are to fork over tens of thousands of dollars when his twins get to high school, or to leave East Baton Rouge Parish for greener scholastic pastures. “We don’t have another 10 years to wait,” he continues. “That’s why we’re involved in this.”

Dustin Yates, Committee for the City of St. George
“No way,” firefighter Dustin Yates says when asked if he has any interest in running for public office if the City of St. George is established in the near future.

He is the opposite of a politician. A big guy with a perpetual smile on his face, he describes himself as a “hugger,” and that seems completely appropriate.

He mentions this personal quality while talking about an angry woman he met at a recent St. George petition-signing event. The woman was upset, Yates says, because “no one had asked her,” so he sat down with her to explain the situation.

“We talked for about 45 minutes,” he says. “She had a lot of the same concerns that I did, and at the end of the whole deal, we agreed to disagree. Before she left, I told her to come give me a hug. Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable.”

After teaching high school English at East St. John Reserve in Metairie, Yates and his wife moved to Baton Rouge, and he took a teaching job at Woodlawn in 2005.

“I was the guy you’d see buying clothes for them, giving them rides home,” he says. “I did everything I could for them; I never had a bad experience with my students.”

Eight years ago, Yates left his teaching career behind to become a firefighter. Though he now works in the fire department office, he still feels he’s honoring the calling that led him away from education. “My dad was a firefighter,” Yates says. “I wanted to do something more to serve the community I live in. When you’re a kid, I guess you look up to your daddy.”

He and his wife have a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. His average weekday starts at a yawn-inducing 4:20 a.m., and if he’s lucky, he might get a chance to unwind on the porch swing with his wife at the end of a long week. With that picture in mind, it makes sense when he says that the hardest thing he’s had to cope with throughout his involvement with St. George is the media ferocity. It has earned him some unwanted attention in public, he says.

“Some people say, ‘Hey man, keep up the good work,'” Yates explains, “but some people are like, ‘You’re that guy? ‘Why are you such a racist? Were you always a bigot? Why are you trying to destroy our city?'”

Even with the occasional honk or obscene hand gesture he receives in traffic, Yates says he often wishes he could sit down with those opposed to the creation of St. George, going so far as to say he’d love to be friends with them.

“We’re all looking at each other from across a battlefield,” he says. “It’s a hostile environment, and there’s a lack of humanity in the way we come at each other. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Susan Nelson, Creator of Better Together
At a cozy coffee shop, Susan Nelson, 37, orders a sandwich carrying a stack of law books. She only has about 45 minutes to finish her homework before dashing back to Southern University for another class, and next week, she’ll board a flight to D.C. for business.

When it comes to influential or significant social policy-making, no one who knows Nelson would expect her to sit on the sidelines if she had something valid to say.

A native of Baton Rouge, Nelson graduated from Scotlandville Magnet, guided by progressive, military parents who crossed angry desegregation picket lines years before. “There was a black teacher at my elementary school that did not want to teach black kids,” she says. “I remember that because my parents were like, ‘Our children will not be in this class because that is insane.'”

Nelson is prone to career hopping, and has done everything from media consulting and writing to college-level administration work. After finishing up an undergrad degree in creative writing and political communications at LSU, she globetrotted for a few years before landing in New Orleans, where she met her husband. The pair don’t have children, which could be how Nelson is able to pull herself through law school at 37 with gusto to spare.

A few years ago, she and her husband decided to build a house in Baton Rouge—the long-lost home she’d come to appreciate, both spiritually and culturally. As fate would have it, they chose to put down their Baton Rouge roots in a neighborhood that sits right at the edge of the Iberville Parish line—which is within the boundaries proposed for the City of St. George.

“I moved here because I wanted to live in Baton Rouge,” she says with intensity.

Her list of complaints is lengthy and ranges from property taxes and the city water supply to trash pickup. But outside of all her infrastructural concerns, her fight against St. George seems to find its fuel in her definition of community.

“My life spans across the city. I go downtown, I go to law school at Southern, I live in St. George,” she explains. “Let’s talk about what this means for the entire city of Baton Rouge.”

John Delgado, Baton Rouge Metro Council Member
Councilman John Delgado cuts the very image of a serious attorney when he enters the room. He looks folks in the eye when he meets them. He offers a firm handshake.When asked what he does in his spare time, for a split second, he looks completely stumped. Perhaps he doesn’t have very much of it.

“I’m an attorney,” he says, almost in the form of a question.

“I own a bar.”

Recently he has reinforced his intent to file a lawsuit against St. George if it becomes a city, using the same articulate ferocity he’d be likely to espouse as an attorney in court. His professional positions—both as an attorney and as a council member—make him one of few with the lawful ability to make good on that threat. The only question left, it seems, is what moves him to threaten such a drastic action.

His answer is that creating St. George will devastate the city of Baton Rouge and will reverse a decade of progress in the areas of crime prevention and large-scale economic development. At length, Delgado explains many back-end reasons to support his stance, but on a personal level, the St. George community falls quite close to home for the councilman.

Delgado grew up in Meadow Park subdivision, and he says he spent his childhood biking those streets, swimming in the Village St. George pool and attending St. George Catholic School. His personal motives seem less focused on public school system woes, and—like Susan Nelson—more focused against the prospect of a new city. In the relevant context, he makes his definition of community very clear: St. George is Village St. George.

“St. George is east of Siegen, south of Perkins, and north of Highland; that is Village St. George,” he continues. “What they are calling St. George is a cobbling-together of basically all the unincorporated areas. It’s not one city or one community.”

As far as burning political bridges is concerned, Delgado acknowledges that he would consider running for Mayor-President of East Baton Rouge Parish, but he doesn’t seem to be worried about this debate’s effect on his chances at winning any future election.

“I don’t care about my political future,” he says. “I care more about being able to tell my daughter 10 years from now, ‘Your daddy held this town together and fought to keep us united as a community,’ than to say, ‘I’m mayor.'”

Belinda Davis, President of One Community One School District
LSU professor Belinda Davis just may be exhausted at this point in the St. George debate. She’s lost a lot of sleep over it.

When the new school district was first proposed to the Legislature in the 2012 session, Davis was at the Capitol to fight it. The mother of three teaches three courses and researches poverty-related policies at LSU, and she says she’s reminded of her reasons every time she sees a school bus.

“During the legislative session, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep,” she says.

Her organization’s numerical and verbal conclusions, which can be found on the One Community One School District website, no doubt stem from her years of studying national welfare policies in order to analyze theories of public policy.

As an educator herself, Davis is also personally concerned about the pensions of currently-retired teachers who taught at St. George area schools—referred to as “legacy costs”—which she claims have not been accurately compensated for in the budget proposed by the St. George committee.

“These teachers paid into the Baton Rouge retirement system throughout their entire careers,” she says. “Who’s going to pay for their pensions until the day they die?”

Beyond this, the Baton Rouge High School alum feels she’s taking on the personal burden of so many children who attend Baton Rouge public schools in her fight against St. George.

Those student include her own.

“It’s very stressful to think about, because these are 46,000 kids, and their educational fate is in part dependent on defeating this breakaway school district,” she adds. “Their education leads to their ability to advance in life. I just couldn’t sit by and let it happen without trying to stop it.”