Istrouma High, under state control since 2012 and closed a year ago, would reopen in August as a neighborhood high school under a proposal the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board preliminarily approved Thursday.
The board also recommended extending Aramark’s school custodial, maintenance and grounds keeping contract for 16 more months, through the end of June 2017. Superintendent Warren Drake, who took over in June, has found fault with the condition of many school buildings and has demanded more from the Philadelphia-based corporate giant.
The votes Thursday on both items were unanimous. Board members Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and David Tatman were absent. Board member Vereta Lee approved the Aramark extension but left the meeting before the Istrouma High vote.
Both items will return to the board Oct. 15 for final approval.
Istrouma High is the original north Baton Rouge high school, founded in 1917. It moved into its home at 3730 Winbourne Ave. after World War II. For more than six decades, it served as the neighborhood high school for much of the area.
The state took over the school in 2012 due to chronic low academic performance. The state hired a new principal and staff, but more than half of the students left, and the school continued to have problems. In 2014, the state’s Recovery School District shuttered the school and boarded up the windows, prompting protests from school alumni and community leaders. Until recently, RSD has been shopping the building to charter school management groups considering locating in Baton Rouge.
The proposed agreement to return Istrouma High to local control is the culmination of months of talks among Drake, school supporters and state leaders.
Drake, a top administrator himself for three years with the Louisiana Department of Education before taking his current job, has described north Baton Rouge as an “educational desert,” especially at the high school level, and said a reopened Istrouma would fill a big need.
“The bottom line is we need a high school in 70805 (ZIP code area),” Drake said. “Istrouma High is one of the most iconic buildings in this city. I think it’s a great day today to say that Istrouma High is coming back.”
The agreement, once approved by both parties, would allow the school system to take immediate control of the building and start work on its reopening. The agreement, though, wouldn’t release Istrouma back to full East Baton Rouge control until July 2017. State law requires that once a school is taken over and placed in RSD, at least five years have to pass before it can return; by summer 2017, that five-year threshold will be reached.
Drake said he is planning to hold community meetings this fall to help shape the plan for the new Istrouma, and he wants to hire a principal by January.
“We can start the process, and I think it’s going to be an exciting process,” Drake said.
Domoine Rutledge, attorney for the school system, said state leaders plan to bring this issue to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education when it meets in November.
School Board member Tarvald Smith said that’s reassuring, noting it’s important to get a deal done before the new administration and any new BESE members take office. Smith also likes language in the proposal indicating the state Department of Education will recommend returning control of the school to East Baton Rouge Parish by 2017.
When asked about the proposed Istrouma agreement before Thursday’s board meeting, Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, responded cautiously.
“The department is aware of the document and is still determining a long-term siting for the Istrouma building,” Pastorick said.
In July, Drake pegged the cost of fixing the old school at about $10 million. He’s not sure what the true number will be, saying that figure is just a quick estimate by an architect who walked through the building.
While getting Istrouma back has been a high priority for Drake, RSD leaders have been complaining for years about the need for the school system to spend more money to fix the six other school buildings RSD controls in Baton Rouge, all former East Baton Rouge Parish schools the state took over. Many of those buildings have fallen into disrepair since they came into state control.
Under state law, RSD is responsible for repairs and maintenance at these buildings, while the school system is responsible for “extensive repair to buildings or facilities that would be considered to be a capital expense,” but the law does not define what constitutes capital expense. This lack of clarity has been the root of the dispute. RSD leaders want a mutually agreed upon definition.
Drake said discussions about defining that language are ongoing but “completely separate” from the Istrouma High negotiations that he hopes will wrap up in the next few weeks.
Aramark has overseen most support work — custodial, maintenance, grounds keeping and warehousing — for the parish school system since spring 2004. Its contract was last extended in 2011 and is set to expire at the end of February. The proposed extension being considered now is shorter than the five-year extension Aramark offered as recently as summer 2014.
In exchange for extending Aramark’s contract for 16 months, Drake has negotiated new performance standards. For instance, if Aramark does not communicate timely with the school system about problems that arise, fails to fully staff any school facility or neglects to properly secure buildings, the company would give financial credits that would lower the overall bill to taxpayers. The contract costs the school system $27.4 million a year at present.
The two parties are still working on the agreement, and a final draft is to be ready by the board’s Oct. 15 meeting.
Drake said Aramark has improved since he started as superintendent.
“We asked Aramark to do quite a bit to open school this year, and they did that,” he said.
Drake, however, said there’s more to do, and the extension gives Aramark time to make those improvements. If not, he’s ready to shop around to find a replacement, noting there are other companies that do the same work.
Representatives from Aramark were present Thursday, but none spoke.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, urged the board to ensure that local companies that do business with Aramark and Aramark employees in Baton Rouge are paid fairly.
“I have some concerns about how much the local people are making versus what the people who are not local are making,” he said.