LUTCHER — St. James Parish School Board and Parish Council members and other parish officials emphasized collaboration and cooperation during a special joint meeting arranged by the school district to help achieve a unified vision for the parish.
School Superintendent Alonzo Luce said during the meeting Thursday he also wanted to share feedback and address concerns with the Parish Council as major industrial growth and resulting residential migrations could bring more change to the parish than it has seen in 40 years.
“The main purpose today is just seeing why there is such a need for us to collaborate on some big decisions, where we know what the council is looking at doing,” Luce said. “Where we as a school district make sure we don’t go and spend money on a facility that we aren’t going to able to use because there aren’t going to be kids in that area.”
Feelings haven’t always been so amicable between the two governing bodies.
Parish President Dale Hymel Jr. mentioned two sources of tension that brought the elected officials together for the special meeting:
- The Parish Council’s support of steel manufacturer Nucor Corp.’s cooperative endeavor agreement with the state that exempts the corporation from paying local property taxes to the parish but requires the company to make less fruitful annual payments to the school district instead.
- The parish’s proposed comprehensive plan to guide future growth.
School Board officials have expressed disapproval with the comprehensive plan after comments from residents critical of the school system were included and because the plan’s designers didn’t take into account current school locations and projects in regard to future industrial growth.
The comprehensive plan was approved this summer by the steering committee that helped draft it and has been sent to the parish Planning Commission for review.
Hymel said he hoped it would be adopted by the Parish Council by the end of the year.
Luce’s presentation addressed critical concerns of the School Board, including issues such as the viability of keeping Romeville Elementary School open, because it sits in the middle of some of the only parish land left for industrial use.
The same applies for Fifth Ward Elementary School on the west bank, Luce said.
Even if the areas near these schools aren’t currently zoned for industry, Luce said, the School Board must decide whether to keep the schools open if people won’t build homes in the vicinity because the land could be designated as industrial.
The most imminent decision, Luce said, is whether the School Board should spend up to $2 million on a new football stadium at St. James High School if potential refinery and tank farm construction near the school could cause many nearby residents to relocate.
In the alternative, Luce asked, would the School Board be better served to spend up to $30 million on new high school site?
“We think this is really our next decision point as a school board,” Luce said.
The only real criticism at the meeting came when Hymel asserted that some of the negative feelings between the School Board and Parish Council could have been avoided by having a School Board member or school district personnel sitting on one of the various boards, committees or task forces; especially the parish Planning Commission.
“The big one that I think somebody needs to sit on is the Planning Commission,” Hymel said. “What better seat to sit on where you would know what industry is coming in the parish, what businesses are expanding, what subdivisions are being developed, where they’re being developed?”
Hymel said the parish’s home rule charter mandates a School Board representative sit on the 10-member Planning Commission, but the commission’s School Board representative’s seat remains vacant.
Also attending the meeting were Sheriff Willy J. Martin Jr., Assessor Glenn Waguespack, Clerk of Court Edmond Kinler Jr. and a number of other parish school officials and employees.
After presentations by the officials, those attending were divided into four groups to brainstorm how collaboration could help economic development, education and school consolidation in the parish.
After the meeting, Luce and Hymel said they hoped the joint session would not be the last of its kind the two groups hold.
“It’s truly a blessing for us to come together as one,” said School Board President Charles Nailor Sr. “We have to come together to show we can work together as a team to make a successful community.”