- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - This is not the first time Trey Cook has spent long days knocking on door after door. He hawked educational books and Bibles over a long college summer. Now, he and his wife, Patty, have a more personal cause: getting neighbors to agree they should create a new city with its own school system.

The Cooks are among 25 to 50 active volunteers dedicated to the movement to create a city of St. George. For the last year-and-a-half, they’ve knocked on doors, collected signatures for a petition and asked residents in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish to envision a world where their kids could attend high-quality community public schools.

An earlier petition drive fell nearly 2,700 signatures short of the number needed to call an election: one-quarter of registered voters within the proposed city limits. Thousands of signatures turned out to be invalid.

This time, volunteers and workers they’re paying have until the end of May to collect 17,859 signatures A recent count was 15,165.

The Cooks’ perseverance comes from their experience with Baton Rouge public schools. One of their daughters is a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, the parish’s top-ranked public high school. The other is a freshman at Woodlawn High School, which is graded a C school although it features a gifted program.

The Cooks say friends’ eyes light up when they say “Baton Rouge Magnet” but narrow with worry at “Woodlawn.”

The Cooks said they debate every year if public schools are the right choice for their daughters. They said they can only name a handful of friends who have remained steady classmates.

“We would watch their friends peel off like layers of an onion,” Trey Cook said.

SCHOOLS AT HEART

St. George leader Norman Browning and others asked legislators in 2012 and 2013 to create a new school district in the southeastern part of the parish. The Legislature rejected the idea of a school district that wasn’t within a designated municipality, so advocates refocused on creating a city.

But their pitches focus on schools.

St. George volunteer Dwight Hudson told people as he knocked on doors in the Shenandoah area on a recent Wednesday that the new city would bring new and better schools.

As he walked through the neighborhood, Hudson clicked through a phone app that showed him who was registered to vote in each house and whether they had signed.

He said he targets homes where one person has signed the petition but another has not.

At some houses, people instantly came outside to chat. At one, someone peered through one blind and blinked at him until he walked away. At others, his knocking and doorbell ringing angered the pets.

“I hate when dogs bark; I always feel like I’m disturbing somebody,” he said with a laugh.

Whether or not someone signs, Hudson ends each conversation, “Appreciate ya!”

Not everyone is friendly. The Cooks said people have driven past, shouting shouting obscenities. But it’s the friendly ones who are willing to sign the petition that keep them going.

In 1½ hours one late Wednesday afternoon, Hudson secured six more signatures and gained three leads on people who might want to sign but were not home. Some people said they remembered signing before, but didn’t show up in Hudson’s database as signatories. Petition pages are sometimes lost, and other times voter registration records are not up to date, Hudson said.

He and other volunteers also set up signing stations at grocery stores, gas stations and other public places where people can sign the petition.

“As hard as we’re working to get it on the ballot, there are people working just as hard to not get it onto the ballot,” said Patty Cook.

PAID HELP

St. George leaders have also hired private companies to help them reach their final signature goal.

That caused some trouble: two contracted workers signed as witnesses to signatures that The Advocate reported were forged.

A different political firm, 3 Strategies LLC, was brought in weeks ago to help collect signatures.

St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey would not say how much money the St. George incorporation effort has raised, nor how much St. George is paying 3 Strategies. In January 2014, organizers had raised at least $18,750.

“After nearly four years, we’ve just now been able to raise enough money to hire a lawyer,” Rainey said. He also said fundraising has improved as the campaign gained steam.

The volunteers maintain their core strategy is regular, middle-class people chatting with other regular, middle-class people about how to make schools better.

For Trey Cook, a full day of IT work followed by work for St. George harkens back to the days of selling books.

“It’s very similar in that I feel like I’m working 80 hours a week right now,” he said.

“It’s just a daily part of our lives,” added his wife.

They have faith that they will collect enough signatures for an election to create a city with a better school district. But even if they fail, the Cooks say the volunteers’ efforts will not have been for nothing.

“This whole thing has brought attention and focus on the school system that hasn’t been there,” said Patty Cook. “Whether St. George happens or not, it’s not going away.”

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Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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