East Baton Rouge Parish school officials have trimmed their school construction wish list for the next decade by $132 million as they prepare to ask voters in April to renew a 1-cent sales tax that would be used to pay for the projects.
The competition to get a piece, or a bigger piece, of the tax pie, however, rages on with School Board members pushing to get projects funded for schools in their districts.
Superintendent Warren Drake said the wish list "is changing and it’s going to keep changing.”
The overall price tag now rests at $413 million, a bit under the $417 million that a 1-cent sales tax is expected to raise. Voters are likely to be asked to renew that tax April 29. It would fund school construction between 2019 and 2029.
The latest project list — the third version to be circulated — calls for building or rebuilding eight schools, down from 15 proposed initially. Nine more schools are slated for major renovations while 11 are looking at minor renovations.
The latest version wasn't all cuts. Westdale Heights Academic Magnet, which was going to just get renovations, is in line to be torn down and rebuilt for $25.4 million. And Broadmoor Middle, which was slated for closure, is looking at $15 million in renovations.
When Drake presented the latest list to the School Board earlier this month, it sparked lengthy debate. Three board members with districts in north Baton Rouge suggested that their areas are getting shortchanged and that not addressing that inequity might jeopardize renewal of the 1-cent sales tax.
Indeed, only 12 percent of the money in the latest version is headed to schools north of Florida Boulevard, and more than half is slated to be spent on schools south of Interstate 10.
“The school system has done a great job over the years with the previous (tax construction) phases, but this proposed plan does a big disservice to the northern part of the parish,” board member Kenyetta Nelson-Smith said.
Nelson-Smith was especially upset that one of the cut projects was a planned middle school to be built on the former Bank Elementary site. The school system instead plans to add middle school grades to a new elementary school to be built in the area when it merges Brownfields and White Hills elementary schools.
Nelson-Smith said it’s unfair to reward south Baton Rouge, where the public largely avoids public schools, while ignoring the needs of students in north Baton Rouge.
“We are not adequately serving the students that are dedicated and committed to this parish,” Nelson-Smith said.
Board member Mike Gaudet, whose district is largely south of I-10 near LSU, responded by pointing out that south Baton Rouge has few public schools compared to the rest of the parish even though it’s the fastest growing area population-wise.
“To say they haven’t supported the schools … we haven’t given them the schools to support,” Gaudet said.
“The past three tax plans have been heavily weighted toward north Baton Rouge. It’s time for south Baton Rouge.”
Gaudet said building more neighborhood schools in south Baton Rouge — it last built one there in 1973 — would increase public school support in his area.
“I hope we can get away from this provincial type of discussion and talk about what’s important to serve all the children in the parish,” Gaudet said.
The process of developing future school construction projects began in the summer and the board is not planning to vote on a final list until mid-February.
An in-house committee has been meeting since the summer to refine the list of projects. First principals made suggestions, followed by members of the general public at six community forums that were held in the fall. Four more community forums are planned in the weeks before the board’s February vote.
The second draft of the project list clocked in at $545 million, $128 million over revenue estimates, requiring cuts.
South Baton Rouge is getting five of the proposed eight new or rebuilt schools, two fewer than version two of the list.
The most complicated project involves Southdowns School.
Southdowns is a special-needs school for young children that sits on a valuable piece of real estate at 2050 Hood Ave. The latest plan is to spend $35.4 million to demolish that school, as well as nearby Buchanan and University Terrace elementaries, and build two new schools on the property.
One of the rebuilt schools would serve the children at Southdowns School; the other would serve students from the merged Buchanan and University Terrace elementary schools.
At the same time, Polk Elementary, which has been on the closure list, would reopen as a traditional school.
Also in south Baton Rouge, Glasgow Middle and Mayfair Lab schools would be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of about $35 million apiece. Mayfair Lab, however, is no longer in line to add a high school.
The final two of the five south Baton Rouge schools don’t exist yet. Drake is proposing to build a new K-8 school and a high school at an estimated price of $90 million at yet-to-be-determined locations in southeast Baton Rouge.
Board member Jill Dyason was not pleased. She has pressed for three schools in the area, an elementary, a middle and a high school, which would cost about $30 million more. She said mixing middle school kids with younger children on the same campus will be unpopular.
“The parents really don’t like idea of kids going to an eighth grade (at an elementary school),” Dyason said.
North Baton Rouge has benefited from nearly half of the $650 million worth of school projects that have been completed since voters first approved the 1-cent sale tax in 1998. The area’s schools also are benefiting from tens of millions of dollars in repair work since the August 2016 floods with the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursing the school system up to 90 percent of that work.
Board member Dawn Collins said the FEMA flood money did not cover all the facility needs in her area and she urged Drake to do more, particularly for Belaire High where the track and baseball fields need rehabilitating.
“I’m asking for less than $1 million out of more than $400 million,” Collins said. “I’m highly upset that it was shrugged off because we got flood money.”
Board member Vereta Lee objected to the downgrading of Glen Oaks High School, which flooded in August 2016. At one point, it was slated to receive $35 million. Now, it’s set to to receive far less, only improvements to some of its athletic facilities.
“You’ve got to spread the cheese across the parish,” Lee said.
Drake promised to revisit the Glen Oaks High project once he knows exactly how much money the school system will get in reimbursements from FEMA.
Board President Evelyn Ware-Jackson said she's hopeful that board members will manage to find common ground.
“Everybody across the parish wants the same thing,” she said. “They want to be close to home. They want a quality school so they don’t have to travel across town.”
Editor's note: This story was modified on Dec. 21. The original version incorrectly said Brookstown Middle may get $15 million in renovations. That should be Broadmoor Middle. The Advocate regrets the error.