Citing numerous phone calls and emails and a few agonizing nights, St. James Parish School Board members put aside plans to shutter four public elementary schools as part of a proposed consolidation of operations.

Through a series of votes, the seven-member board decided Thursday to keep open and upgrade the west bank schools of Fifth Ward, Sixth Ward and Vacherie elementaries and the east bank school of Lutcher Elementary.

But the board also decided to proceed with plans to move St. James High School from its current River Road location and away from burgeoning industry.

The board votes essentially laid out the broad framework for capital improvements that will now be refined before voters decide whether to fund them with a nearly $56 million bond issue. The sale of the existing 46-acre St. James High School complex for an expected $10 million would provide additional money for school improvements.

The board already has voted to put the bond election before voters on May 2. If approved, it would extend an existing 10-mill property tax for 20 years.

Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce said Thursday the latest vote was necessary so school officials could present the outlines of the plan to the U.S. Department of Justice and a federal judge overseeing the system’s long-standing desegregation case.

School Board President George Nassar Jr. warned a packed meeting room in Lutcher after the votes Thursday that what the board had decided depended on federal approval.

“So this plan that we put together, we tried the best that we could to satisfy the community, do what’s best for the students and satisfy a 50-year-old court order,” Nassar said.

Other elements of the plan include moving all west bank sixth-graders to separate facilities at the new St. James High, which is a seventh- to 12th-grade school. All east bank elementary schools would be upgraded, but sixth-graders would no longer go to Lutcher Elementary.

The planned arrival of the $1.85 million Yuhuang Chemical methanol complex next to St. James High and talk of another, unannounced complex next door and an industrial rail line behind the high school prompted school officials to move toward relocating the high school to a 54-acre site along La. 3127 in Vacherie where the new Wildcats football stadium is.

But deciding on the overall plan was an early test for the newly composed School Board, which saw turnover in four of seven spots during elections last fall.

Some of the aging west bank elementary schools are in a swath of the parish designated for industry under the parish’s master plan and where some major facilities, including the $1.3 billion South Louisiana Methanol complex, are planned or built.

New board member Dianne Spencer, who represents parts of that area, said many of her constituents feared losing schools like Fifth Ward would hurt the struggling river communities.

“My community is just dying by the day, and I know that removing that school, that’s just another vacant spot that we can put something there,” Spencer said.

F ollow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.