An East Baton Rouge Schools bus navigates Winbourne Ave. early in the morning on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. The system is preparing, if approved by the school board, to buy new technology to install on buses to allow school administrators -- and parents -- to track buses in real time. A few buses already have GPS tracking.


After months of meetings and debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday agreed unanimously to send to voters a 10-year $362 million construction plan that would rebuild six schools and construct up to three new schools in south Baton Rouge.

The next stop is the polls on April 28, when voters in the school district will be asked to renew a 10-year, 1-cent sales tax devoted to education.

Proceeds from sales tax are used to bolster salaries of the more than 5,500 employees of the school system, to upgrade instructional technology, and to help support alternative education and truancy.

But the biggest slice goes to school construction and that has been the most contested component. Figuring which schools will be repaired or built and when that would happen has been a hot issue for months, the subject of 10 community forums.

The plan the board approved was not settled until early Thursday afternoon when Superintendent Warren Drake posted his final recommended list of 23 projects that would be tackled between 2019 and 2029.

“We feel it’s a very strong plan and one that it should move forward,” Drake said.

The final list is almost identical to one that Drake presented on Saturday at full-day retreat at Southern University, but the sequence of construction is much different.

Plan to build new schools in south Baton Rouge criticized as pushed too far in future

The biggest change is how Drake plans to spend $80 million designated for new schools in fast-growing but school-scarce south Baton Rouge. On Saturday, several board members questioned Drake’s initial idea of waiting until 2026 to start construction. Looming in the background were concerns that failing to build new schools soon would make it easier for supporters of a renewed effort to incorporate a city of St. George; St. George backers had previously promised to build as many as six new schools in the area.

The revised schedule greatly accelerates the timetable for new school construction in south Baton Rouge. It would set aside $10 million right away as a fund to find land for these schools. Construction for a $25 million elementary school would start during the 2020-21 school year. The construction of schools in the upper grades — either a middle/high school, or separate middle and high schools — would not begin until 2024 at earliest. About $45 million is being set aside to build that school or schools.

The tilt towards more school construction in south Baton Rouge and less work in north Baton Rouge did not sit well with some in the audience who see it as a continuation of funding inequity that shortchanges children from impoverished families.

"The days of settling for less and settling for crumbs are over," said Dadrius Lanus, a board watcher. "All children — black, white and brown — deserve better."

Board members Jill Dyason and Evelyn Ware-Jackson waged a last ditch, losing a 2-7 vote in an unsuccessful effort to prevent $15 million worth of major renovations at Broadmoor Middle School from becoming used to benefit a magnet school.

After hearing objections from several board members, Drake had already agreed to drop the idea of closing Broadmoor Middle and moving the popular Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet, or BR FLAIM, in there instead. But Dyason wanted to foreclose the possibility of spending money on anything but a traditional school. She said she’s interested in expanding the middle school’s attendance zone to take in kids from crowded Woodlawn Middle.

Board member Mark Bellue, who represents the area, said he doesn’t want to locked into that idea.

“Could be that your idea is the solution we need, but we don’t need to make that decision tonight,” Bellue said.

BR FLAIM is already set to vacate the two campuses it currently occupies and move this fall into the former Valley Park junior high school at 4510 Bawell St. Parents at the school went out in force at all the forums seeking a bigger space to hold school.

Matt Diez, an active parent at BR FLAIM, said he and other parents are happy to stay at Valley Park for the foreseeable future and will work with school officials to make their program thrive.

“We’ve just shed our baby fat, we’re entering our awkward adolescent years, and we don’t know what we want to do when we grow up,” Diez joked.

The revised schedule has readjusted timelines. For instance, a $3 million addition to Belfair Montessori Magnet school would start in 2020, two years earlier than before. Similarly, a planned $4 million renovation of the visual and performing arts space at Forest Heights Academy of Excellence now would start in 2021, two to three years earlier than before.

The revised schedule would delay the start of demolition and rebuilding of Mayfair Lab School from 2020 to 2025. And renovations to athletic facilities at Scotlandville and Tara high schools are being pushed back three years to the last year of work, 2028-29.

Several Mayfair parents unsuccessfully pressed Thursday to move back up the front of the line the reconstruction of that 56-year-old facility at 9880 Hyacinth Ave.

Parent Steve Cottrell said he’d never considered a public school until he encountered Mayfair Lab. Now, he's a passionate advocate. He said one of its key strengths is its racial diversity: "When I look at my school, it looks like this board."

One of the most debated proposals has been $35 million worth of major renovations to McKinley High as well as the addition of a seventh-to-ninth-grade school on the campus. Several school alumni spoke Thursday seeking a more expensive rebuilding of the historic high school of the same quality as the $50-plus million renovations to Baton Rouge Magnet High and reconstruction of Lee High.

“I’m for rebuilding McKinley from the ground up,” said Russell T. Flowers, a 1974 graduate. “We don’t mind paying taxes. We want to get some results.”

Marcus Williams, program manager at CSRS/Tillage Construction, the private partnership which oversees most public school construction in Baton Rouge, told the board the project budget at McKinley High would have to increase to build a brand new school.

“To tear down and build another school would cost another $10, $15 million,” Williams said.

Board member Mike Gaudet, whose district includes McKinley High, promised that the work done at McKinley would be high-quality and extensive.

“It’s not just about the money,” he said. “It’s about our commitment to make that a great school.”

Board President David Tatman said the 1-cent sales tax just does not provide enough money to pay for all the necessary construction.

“We wish could build all the schools in the first year,” Tatman said. “But we need more money to do what we need to do. We’d need $1 billion.”

The penny tax, first approved in 1998, is divided into three parts and voters will be asked to vote on each separately.

The biggest chunk, 51 percent, goes to school construction. It's estimated to raise $477 million. The bulk of that is going for new construction but some of it is being set aside to purchase technology and to improve air-conditioning and heating systems.

Forty-one percent supports employee salaries and benefits, estimated to raise $384 million. And, finally, 8 percent is set aside to fund student discipline centers as well as alternative education and reducing truancy, estimated to raise $75 million.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.