As they have at previous community forums, East Baton Rouge Parish school officials finished their presentation Tuesday night on proposed long-term construction plans by urging the audience in the McKinley High auditorium to head to nearby classrooms for in-depth small group discussions.

Appellate Judge Michael Guidry, graduate of the McKinley High class of 1980, stood up from the audience of 350 people and made clear that wasn’t going to happen just yet.

“If you get us into small groups, you would not hear our collective voice, and our collective voice is we want a new 21st century high school,” Guidry said.


McKinley High is set to receive quite a bit of construction work if voters renew a one-cent sales tax on April 29, ranging from $30 million to $35 million, but school officials have stopped short of agreeing to rebuild the whole school, which was built in 1961.

After the audience was urged one more time to start leaving the auditorium, Paula Collins, also a 1980 graduate and the third of five generations to attend the historic high school, stood up.

“You are at McKinley High School,” Collins said. “We are a family. We don’t want to be separated.”

The filibuster forced Superintendent Warren Drake to return to the microphone.

“Alright, I’ll give you 15 minutes. I’ll answer any question you’ve got,” he said. “Set the clock.”

Guidry asked a simple question: “If we can spend a $50 million to build a new Lee High and a new Baton Rouge High, why do we have to have a patchwork at McKinley High?”

Drake explained that the improvements the school district has in store for McKinley would be tantamount to a new school. The district would renovate the school's two main academic buildings but not the auditorium or the gym, which have been worked on recently. They would redo the library and administration areas, as well as adding a new junior high with grades seven to nine that would feed into McKinley High.

The junior high would be built on eight adjacent acres now occupied by Buchanan Elementary. Buchanan in turn would merge with nearby University Elementary, which would be rebuilt and expanded on its property at 575 W. Roosevelt St. The combined school would add a sixth grade and would feed into McKinley High’s new junior high component. The idea is to keep children in middle school grades closer to home; since 2004 they have been reassigned to more distant middle schools.

“You’re going to see a brand new campus with the changes in the Buchanan property,” Drake promised. “I think you’re going to see that.”

Drake, however, had no drawings to showcase Tuesday and said the final cost of work has yet to be determined. Dominated by McKinley alumni as well teachers, parents and students, audience members clearly wanted more.

“We need to get this all torn down and get it right like all the other schools,” said Lance Bowers, who volunteers at the high school.

The renovation of Baton Rouge High and rebuilding of Lee High, which were paid for by the 1-cent sales tax, were high on many speakers’ minds. One mother told the audience her son recently went with the McKinley robotics team to Lee High and came back amazed.

“He’s like, ‘They got everything at Lee High and my school has nothing,’" she said. “That hurts me as a parent.”

Drake promised that the renovations would make that better too.

“I think when you see the renderings we have for this school I think it will be exactly what you want to see,” he said.

McKinley High, at 800 E. McKinley St., is the third-largest school in the East Baton Rouge school system, with about 1,200 students. That’s down from more than 1,400 students two years ago, but more than the 1,000 or so students the high school has enrollment for most of its recent history.


Tuesday’s gathering was the last of 10 forums the school system held leading to the Feb. 22 School Board meeting. That's when the board will consider a final list to send to voters at the April 29 special election. Voters will be asked to renew the 1-cent sales tax, about half of which goes to school construction. If renewed, the tax is estimated to raise about $417 million between 2019 and 2029 for school construction.

After Tuesday's meeting, several alumni members said they’re not done fighting and freely floated the possibility of voting against the tax renewal if the plans for McKinley don’t improve.

Guidry said the school system needs to show the McKinley backers more-concrete proposals before people will support the renewal.

“Are you going to buy something you haven’t even seen yet?” he asked.

Those who missed Tuesday’s forum can still fill out a survey online to offer their feedback. The deadline to complete it is Thursday at midnight.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.