Istrouma High, under state control since 2012 and closed a year ago, moved closer Thursday to reopening in August as a neighborhood high school under an agreement approved by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Now, the deal heads to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for its endorsement. BESE has yet to schedule a vote, but parish school leaders say they are hoping it will come up when BESE meets next month.
The parish School Board on Thursday also agreed to extend Aramark’s school custodial, maintenance and groundskeeping contract for 16 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. Drake said he plans to spend that period seeing if Aramark can meet his expectations.
The votes Thursday on both items were unanimous. Board members Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and David Tatman were absent.
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.
Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the proposed agreement is unfinished.
“The Department of Education and Recovery School District have not finalized any agreement with the East Baton Rouge School Board, formally or substantively, regarding any school building in north Baton Rouge,” Pastorick said.
Board member Vereta Lee pressed Domoine Rutledge, the school system’s general counsel, for a date when the state would hand the building back.
“I cannot sit here and tell you what date this will actually happen, but having been a part of this for a very long time, we are closer today than we have ever been,” Rutledge responded.
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, 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.
Drake is planning to hold community meetings this fall to help shape the plan for the new Istrouma.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said he’s already spoken with Drake about ways to make the new Istrouma better than the old Istrouma.
“We need a school that is more community oriented, that doesn’t just shut down at 2:30 but is open to the entire community,” Washington said.
In July, Drake pegged the cost of renovating the school at about $10 million but noted that figure is just a quick estimate by an architect who walked through the building.
Aramark has overseen most support work — custodial, maintenance, groundskeeping 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, Drake has negotiated new performance standards. The contract costs the school system $27.4 million a year at present.
Drake has said Aramark has improved since he started as superintendent, but 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 company.
Washington with the Federation of Teachers reiterated concerns that Aramark is shortchanging local companies that do business with it.
“I want to make sure that the people I see at church and that I see at homecoming this weekend that they get their fair share,” he said.
Hyma Moore Sr., a supervisor with one of those subcontractors, Houston-based Metroclean, dismissed such concerns.
“As far as bonuses and raises, we are receiving everything we should receive from Aramark,” Moore said.