The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday advanced plans to merge, expand or relocate more than a dozen public schools, many of them in north Baton Rouge, even as board members from that area demanded more community input and more to help lift struggling schools.
The vote was 6 to 2, with board members Dawn Collins and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith voting no; board member Vereta Lee abstained. A final vote is set for the April 20 meeting.
Superintendent Warren Drake is calling for merging 11 schools, expanding one, closing two and relocating another school. As part of the plan, both Glen Oaks High and the reopening Istrouma High would add middle schools; Broadmoor elementary and middle schools would merge into one school focusing on grades kindergarten through eight; Mayfair Lab would add high school grades; and BR FLAIM would relocate to the former Valley Park Junior High campus.
Some changes would take effect in August, while others would wait another year. The facility changes are outlined in a document called the “Plan for Academic Innovation & Organizational Efficiency.”
“The plan I’m presenting you tonight is good for children all over this parish,” Drake said.
Some changes deal with schools that flooded in August. Other proposals involve schools where enrollment has declined. Others are meant to expand already popular programs or offer more options for parents, particularly in southeast Baton Rouge.
Most board members complimented the plan, while acknowledging that no one got everything they wanted.
“I know this plan is not perfect,” said board President Evelyn Ware-Jackson. “I could rip and tear it up and find every little thing wrong.”
Similarly, board member Jill Dyason called it a “good first step.” She said reducing the number of schools is a reflection of the times.
“We can’t afford to have a school in every neighborhood anymore,” Dyason said.
One late change, recommended just before Thursday’s meeting, got some discussion. It would merge three elementary schools — Capitol, Melrose and Park — onto two campuses, Capitol and Melrose. Melrose would focus on kindergarten to second grade while Capitol would handle third to fifth grades. Prekindergarten children would head to the Delmont Pre-K Center. Park’s campus at 2700 Fuqua St. would close.
The original plan, now dropped, was to merge Capitol Elementary and Capitol Middle school onto the middle school campus and allow Park Elementary to move into the vacated Capitol Elementary building.
Nelson-Smith questioned closing Park, noting voters in 2008 agreed to rebuild the school. Instead, Drake is suggesting taking the $20 million set aside for Park and splitting it, with half going to expand Broadmoor Elementary and half to building the Mayfair high school. Nelson-Smith called the move a “slap in the face” and complained that Drake didn’t hold more community meetings to explain what he wants to do.
“I don’t understand the lack of input of going out to the community,” Nelson-Smith said. “This is not our money. This is theirs.”
Metro Councilman LaMont Cole, who also represents much of that area of north Baton Rouge, urged more community meetings.
“I think it’s very, very important to include people in the process about decisions that affect so many,” Cole said.
Jacqueline Martin, a teacher at Park, said the elementary school, which has an F grade, is finally bonding with its new principal and making strides.
“I can’t just sit back and see us being wiped out without first giving us a chance,” Martin said.
Drake said he’s not opposed to more community input but said it will go only so far.
“The community is probably going to want what they want,” he said.
Drake noted a lot has changed in Baton Rouge since voters went to the polls in 2008. He said a few of the schools approved then are only half full currently.
“The educational landscape in BR has changed dramatically,” he said. “Just to say we’re going to do this because we said we’d do it years ago is not good enough.”
Nelson-Smith and Collins also expressed concern about the lack of additional educational programs for the struggling schools in their north Baton Rouge districts even as south Baton Rouge would add options.
“Nothing in this plan is anything I can bring back to my district,” Collins said.
Nelson-Smith suggested the board should do to more reward people who’ve stuck with the school system, not chase people who’ve left, particularly those in southeast Baton Rouge.
“We’re not fighting for people who don’t care about us,” she said.
One late addition to Drake’s plan is adding magnet programs in the fall to Woodlawn Middle and Woodlawn High schools. The programs, which would be selective admissions, would educate as many as half the students in those schools after three years in operation.
The magnets would draw from within the attendance zones of those schools. The two schools are key to the proposed St. George school district, which supporters planned to create but were unable to get enough signatures to get on the ballot a proposal to create St. George city, the first step in creating a breakaway school district.
“We don’t want southeast Baton Rouge to break away. I want those students to stay,” Drake said.
White Hills Elementary, which is near Baker and has just 150 students, is the only school recommended for closure. Another option is merging White Hills with an unnamed elementary school nearby with each focusing on certain grades.
Here are other Drake facility proposals:
• Merge Glen Oaks High and North Banks Middle in August, with North Banks’ 180 students heading to Glen Oaks High. The high school, which was flooded, is about to undergo a $21 million reconstruction.
• Merge Howell Park Elementary at Claiborne Elementary rather than return Howell Park to 6125 Winbourne Ave. The two schools have 250 and 570 students, respectively. Howell Park, which flooded in August, has shared space at Claiborne, 4707 Denham St.