A small charter school in Slaughter is threatening to bolt the East Feliciana Parish school system if it doesn’t give ground on a proposed operating contract that would require the school to enroll fewer students than previously allowed, delaying plans to rebuild the school and potentially putting its finances at risk.
The parish School Board agreed in January to renew Slaughter Community Charter School for three more years, but the two sides have yet to settle on a new contract. That contract would replace the school’s original contract, which expires at the end of June.
The school, which opened in 2011, broke its silence on the troubled negotiations in a letter it sent out Wednesday to parents and supporters of the school. It urged them to come out in force to the parish School Board’s next meeting on June 7 to press the board to relent.
Members of the charter school’s five-member board on Friday took their concerns to local media.
They said the school, which has the highest school performance score of any charter school in the Baton Rouge metro area, is asking for a maximum of 385 students, but East Feliciana school leaders are insisting the school enroll at most 350. Each student means $9,000-plus in per-pupil revenue a year.
Losing 35 students is enough to wreak havoc with the school’s finances, charter school leaders say. They also say students turned away from Slaughter Community Charter are highly unlikely to enroll in other East Feliciana Parish public schools.
“For them to actually to stop us in our tracks over 35 kids that they probably would not have had anyways is amazing to me,” said Chrissie O’Quinn, a veteran educator who has been on the charter school’s board since it was formed in 2009.
Messages left Friday with East Feliciana Parish Superintendent Carlos Sam seeking comment were not returned.
The fight over the charter school’s future has a strong racial dimension.
Slaughter is predominantly white and growing economically. The charter school, and its feeder school, the district-run Slaughter Elementary, reflect those demographics. Both are about two-thirds white, while East Feliciana’s four other schools are almost completely black.
“We’re the most diverse school in the parish,” is how Slaughter Community board member André Greenup puts it.
Greenup, who is black, said he moved to the Slaughter area 10 years ago and values the strong community connection evident there, reminding him of what it was like in the 1970s when he attended McKinley High School in Baton Rouge.
“My teachers knew who I was before I knew who they were,” Greenup said.
The school had planned to start to rebuild next to the cluster of temporary buildings it uses on La. 412. The work was set to start Wednesday, but it has been delayed for at least a month because of the fight over renewing the school’s charter.
Charter board President Glen LeDoux said the new school is being built for about 400 students. If the school has to enroll fewer students, it would be forced to renegotiate the $8.1 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is funding the new construction, likely delaying the work for a year or two, LeDoux said.
LeDoux said the school will turn to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for a new charter only as a last resort. He said he hopes that going public, which he said he’s resisted until now, will persuade the parish School Board to change its tune.
“It’s not right. It’s an injustice,” LeDoux said. “Someone has to stand up.”
Started at first with just seventh and eighth grades, the school has grown one grade at a time. It now covers grades seven to 12 and enrolls 322 students. It had its first graduating class of 37 students earlier this month. It’s planning to enroll about 350 students in the fall.
The school has several unique features for a Louisiana charter school. Thanks to a federal court order connected with the parish’s 54-year-old desegregation case, Slaughter Community Charter has an attendance zone that covers the southwest corner of the parish where Slaughter rests, though students from other parts of the parish can enroll if there’s room.
Slaughter Mayor Robbie Jackson said new residential development in Slaughter is being planned but only if the charter school is allowed to thrive.
East Feliciana Parish has lower school property taxes than many of its neighbors. Slaughter’s charter school offers the appeal of a smaller school compared with the large schools in nearby Central and Zachary.
Principal Clint Ebey said he regularly gets calls from families in neighboring communities — he said he got a call from a mother in Central on Friday — interested in enrolling their children.
“I know every student here by name,” Ebey said.