After years of conflict, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and the state-run Recovery School District finally have worked out a deal clearing the way for major repairs at seven RSD schools in Baton Rouge built decades ago and now in poor shape.
Even as she joined the majority of the parish School Board on Thursday in approving the new capital repair policy, board member Vereta Lee made clear that, at least for her, all is far from forgiven.
“(Charter schools) are not there to educate the children,” she declared. “They are there to profit off the backs of these children. If you were here for the children, you would have built your own facility like some of the other schools have done.”
Lee made her comments during a board meeting room filled with leaders, parents and advocates of the eight charter schools that operate in the buildings now. Many of them had just pleaded with the board to fix ongoing problems at their schools.
All seven buildings were home to chronically low-performing schools that the state took over between 2008 and 2012 and placed in the RSD. Lee blamed the current operators for the schools’ current physical condition, claiming the buildings were in “tiptop condition” when the school system handed them over, a comment that raised eyebrows throughout the room.
“We’re not failing children,” Lee said. “It’s you all that’s failing these children!”
“Offensive,” Roemer interjected. “Completely offensive.”
“Who said that?” responded Lee, surprised to be contradicted.
After the meeting, speaking to The Advocate, Roemer issued Lee a challenge: “I want her to come to talk to these parents in these schools and say that to their faces.”
Roemer said she hopes Lee’s comments don’t derail the process, which she said has dragged on for more than two years, of paying for major repairs to RSD buildings. She praised other parish school officials for making the agreement happen but said more work needs to be done to create a workable school repair process.
Thursday’s vote was 6-0, with board members Jacqueline Mims, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and David Tatman absent. The new Capital Repair Policy isn’t final. Superintendent Warren Drake and RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard are still ironing out final “stylistic” changes to the wording.
Dobard, who was not present Thursday, issued a statement afterward saying he’s pleased with the progress but the school system needs to put up some money.
“While we are appreciative of their work to this point, we are calling on the school system to adhere to state law and fund these much-needed capital repairs for north Baton Rouge school facilities,” he said.
It’s not clear how much all this will cost. Roemer suggested at least $1 million worth of major repairs are needed.
The seven RSD schools party to the agreement are Capitol and Istrouma high schools; Crestworth, Glen Oaks and Prescott middle schools; and Dalton and Lanier elementary schools.
Another RSD school, located in south Baton Rouge, Kenilworth middle school, has its own repair arrangement with the school system.
Bruce Myles, who is president of the Capitol High School alumni association and who works closely with the charter school operating at Capitol, said the 65-year-old campus has roof leaks that make many classrooms “unusable,” and the heating and air conditioning doesn’t work well, either.
“In that environment, it becomes very difficult to educate our young people,” Myles said. “They have the right to be educated properly.”
Under state law, RSD is responsible for repairs and maintenance, while the school system is responsible for “extensive repair to buildings or facilities that would be considered to be a capital expense.” The law, however, does not define what constitutes a capital expense. This lack of clarity has been at the root of the dispute.
Here’s how the new policy defines a capital expense:
Costs at least $25,000.
Increases the value or extends the lifespan of the facility.
Limited to specific areas such as plumbing, electrical, structural, heating and air conditioning, exterior and, for newer buildings, fire suppression and monitoring.
Can’t result from “inadequate or neglectful maintenance on the part of the charter operator or their contractors/subcontractors.”
The final provision has been a particular bone of contention. To make sure the major repairs sought couldn’t have been prevented earlier, the policy calls for the charter schools to detail what kind of maintenance they’ve done to prevent the need for the major repair in the first place.
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said such issues can been seen at Istrouma High, which the state recently agreed to return to the school system.
“The more our folks get into that facility, the more issues we see that really frighten us,” Rutledge said.