A proposed tax up for a vote in April would fund the most significant school improvements in decades for Lafayette Parish, with a list of projects that includes two new elementary schools, a major addition to Lafayette High School and expansions at nine other campuses.
The Lafayette Parish School Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to ask voters to support a 10-year, half-cent sales tax.
The board also approved a list of $195 million in projects to be done should the tax pass, all aimed of creating permanent space for thousands of students now taking classes in portable buildings.
The proposal is more modest than a $561 million facilities improvement plan floated six years ago that was shelved after voters overwhelmingly shot down a proposed property tax to pay for the plan.
LAFAYETTE — A majority of voters rejected the Lafayette Parish School Board’s proposed prope…
School board members have said they believe voters will be more receptive to a sales tax — and more receptive to a tax in general now that the infighting that once characterized school board politics has subsided in recent years.
The proposal has also received the support the regional economic development group One Acadiana, whose board of directors voted last week to support the proposal, said One Acadiana Chairman Frank Neuner.
"It's too important a problem to continue to ignore," Neuner said of Lafayette's cramped school facilities and the district's dependence on portable buildings for classroom space.
The Lafayette Parish School System has more than 400 temporary classrooms, a number that has climbed over the years as the student population outpaces the capacity of schools.
Lafayette Parish School System Chief Administrative Officer Joe Craig said some of the earliest temporary classrooms were surplus military buildings from the Vietnam War and are still in use.
"They are just galvanized buildings," he said.
School Board member Mary Morrison said some students have gone through the school system without ever setting foot in a permanent classroom.
"I just think we can do better," she said.
The proposed school facilities improvement plan aims to build enough new permanent classroom space to eliminate 248 temporary classrooms at 12 schools.
The biggest single project on the list, at $43 million, is a new building at Lafayette High, which has 31 temporary classrooms.
"It's an old school, and it's a crowded school," Craig said.
Craig said the idea is to build a new building for freshmen, which would allow teachers to work closely with the incoming class apart from the rest of the school.
Keeping freshmen separate is becoming more common in other school districts, and Craig said the "freshman building" concept will likely be carried over to other high school campuses in the future.
The other 11 projects in the school improvement plan are all at elementary schools, where Craig said the issue of temporary buildings is more critical.
The problem is not just aesthetics.
Craig said temporary buildings are generally noisier: Rain pounding on the roof and loud A/C units can make it difficult for students to hear the teacher, and when it does rain, students must brave the elements to go from class to class.
"When it's raining, especially for the elementary kids, it's a problem. They get soaked," Craig said. "Getting those elementary school kids out of the weather was a priority for the board and the district staff."
The projects approved by the board on Wednesday include new schools for Prairie Elementary and Carencro Heights.
Prairie Elementary was built in 1967 with an original design capacity of 263 students. Its current enrollment of 823 is more than triple that, and the campus has 32 temporary classrooms.
Craig said not enough land above flood elevation is available at the current site of Prairie Elementary to expand the school, so the school system is looking for property to build a new school within the current attendance zone for Prairie.
Carencro Heights was built in 1958 with a design capacity of 355 students. It now has an enrollment of 587 students and 14 temporary buildings.
Craig said enough space is available at the current Carencro Heights site to build a new school there.
The new schools for Prairie Elementary and Carencro Heights, along with the new building at Lafayette High School, account for more than half of the $195 million in proposed projects.
The proposals for the nine other schools generally involve additional wings to accommodate students now in temporary classrooms and other projects to expand kitchens, dining areas and other spaces to better serve current student populations.
Neuner, the chairman of One Acadiana, said leadership of the business group believes the proposed improvements are critical.
"We just have to improve public education in Lafayette, not only for the benefit of the students, who deserve it, but also for economic reasons," he said.
Neuner said trying to sell Lafayette to out-of-town business leaders can sometimes be difficult because one of their chief concerns if they have kids is education.
"You take them to Lafayette High and they say, 'Wow. This is where you want my kids to go to school,'" Neuner said.
The School Board earlier this year considered a more ambitious proposal — a property tax to support more than $500 million in school improvements — but ultimately decided against it.
Several board members expressed concerns that voters might reject a property tax because they didn't feel everyone was paying their fare share.
Morrison said that based on what she has heard from her constituents, the sales tax proposal has a better chance of passage.
"They understand that there is really no good time for a tax, but they prefer a sales tax to property tax," she said. "That's very encouraging to me, because in the past, they were always against it."
The proposed tax would generate roughly $24 million a year.
Most of that would go toward the $195 million in projects, but about $3 million would be set aside annually for maintenance.