St. James School Board accepts Yuhuang Chemical’s $10.1 million bid to buy high school, deal depends on voters _lowres

Yuhuang Chemical site -- Advocate graphic

St. James Parish school officials are promising to hit the ground running after voters gave their resounding approval earlier this month to a $56 million bond issue to upgrade schools and relocate and build anew the system’s west bank high school.

A new $33 million St. James High School is the bond issue’s centerpiece after school officials agreed to sell the existing high school to Yuhuang Chemical Inc. The Chinese company is building a $1.85 billion methanol complex next to the school in a corridor that’s become industrialized along the Mississippi River.

The plan includes upgrades for every parish elementary school; moves west bank sixth-graders to St. James High, which now has seventh- to 12th-graders; adds an Olympic-size swimming pool; and creates a new early college high school near Lutcher High.

Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce said the School Board is expected to open bids at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday for three of the projects included in the bond issue plan, and he said he hopes the board will select the winning bids so the projects can get underway this summer. The three projects are: renovations to Gramercy and Paulina elementary schools and new heating and air-conditioning systems for Lutcher High School. The projects are expected to cost about $5.7 million.

Board President George Nassar Jr. said the board also may consider seeking bids for early dirt work and soil testing for the new high school, which will be on a 54-acre site off La. 3127 in Vacherie where the Wildcats’ new football stadium opened last year.

The plan ran into early opposition when school officials floated the idea of consolidating elementary schools on the east and west banks. After February public meetings, the board dropped that concept in favor of more broad-based renovations.

Nassar said on Friday that school employees helped sell the final plan, which won River Region Chamber of Commerce backing.

With 18.5 percent turnout, voters on May 2 supported the 20-year bond issue 74 percent to 26 percent, a margin of victory that Nassar said was somewhat surprising.

“However, I believe the employees of our system were the reason this bond issue passed by the margin that it did. Our employees really worked hard. They understood the issue. They understood what it meant if it didn’t pass,” Nassar said.

The bonds will be supported with an existing 10-mill property tax, though the bond issue extends the life of that tax.

The pending $10.1 million sale of St. James High’s 46-acre campus along River Road hinged on the bond issue. Yuhuang Chemical put down a nonrefundable $500,000 deposit after the School Board backed the sale, but voters had the final word under the deal. While the bonds will bring in $56 million, the system has $66 million to spend when the $10.1 million the company is paying for the site is included.

Charles Goebel, plant manager for Yuhuang Chemical’s Louisiana operations, said the company was pleased to see the public show confidence in the school system, but the bond election also was one of Yuhuang’s milestones toward construction of its first phase in late summer or early fall. The project is expected to be completed in two years.

“As far as we’re concerned, the School Board bond election was a hurdle that we needed to overcome that paved the way for us to be able to purchase the school and that was a condition of our land use permit,” Goebel said.

The company has not yet purchased the land for the plant but has an option for the 1,100 acres, which is behind and alongside the school. The company has said it plans to use the high school for its office complex, though the company is working on temporary offices in St. James.

Goebel said the state Department of Environmental Quality approved Yuhuang’s air operating permit Tuesday, an important regulatory hurdle.

The facility is the first major direct investment in Louisiana by a mainland Chinese company and the first in the United States for Yuhuang Chemical’s corporate parent Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co. Ltd. The company has drawn questions from some quarters about its environmental track record in China. In comments on the air permit, Louisiana environmental groups asked DEQ to reject it as inadequate in favor of a more robust review.

Luce said the new high school, which will have a separate middle school wing and a performing arts center, remains in the design phase. He said groundbreaking is probably six months to a year away and construction is expected to last two to three years.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.