A sharply divided Jefferson Parish School Board on Thursday defeated a plan to build hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new academic buildings for a school district whose facilities have an average age of 52 years.
The plan — totaling as much as $1 billion over four five-year phases — would have depended on the public’s approval of a large bond issue and a 20-year property tax increase to fund the projects, but Thursday’s 5-4 vote derailed such an election.
However, any of the board members who voted the plan down — Cedric Floyd, Larry Dale, Melinda Doucet, Ricky Johnson and Sandra Denapolis-Bosarge — can introduce another version of it at a future meeting.
If the School Board approves a long-term construction plan by September, there would be enough time to get the property tax increase and bond issue on a December ballot.
Board President Ray St. Pierre, Mark Morgan, Marion “Coach” Bonura and Melinda Bourgeois voted in favor of the plan.
Prior to the beginning of his presidency this year, St. Pierre said his top priority was to secure the approval of such a school buildings plan.
The four-phase plan debated Thursday called for first erecting six new schools on both sides of the Mississippi River at a cost of $250 million. Later phases would have included widespread renovations of buildings throughout a 50,000-student district whose oldest building predates the 1920s.
The plan also had an academic component emphasizing the expansion of pre-K to eighth-grade schools, where middle-school-aged students typically perform better in the classroom than they do at traditional middle schools, district Superintendent Isaac Joseph said.
But the program’s chances for passage Thursday crumbled in part because board members disagreed on the location of one of the proposed new schools.
The plan called for placing a new high school dedicated to preparing students for careers in a wide array of industries at the West Bank end of the Huey P. Long Bridge.
St. Pierre said locating the school in such a spot would make it “readily accessible” to students on both sides of the river, who could be transported there via the bridge as well as the nearby West Bank Expressway.
However, Floyd, who preceded St. Pierre as the board president, said it would make more sense to build two high schools of that kind — first, one on the West Bank in Marrero and then another on the East Bank in Metairie.
Floyd said parents on each side of the river would prefer that option over figuring out how to get their children to a part of Jefferson that remains relatively remote, despite the parish’s emphasis on promoting new development there.
As far as he could tell, Floyd said, parents weren’t polled or surveyed on the site, and that bothered him.
“Whether this passes (tonight), I intend to make sure it doesn’t pass the voters,” he said of the proposal on the table.
Dale said he voted against the plan because it wouldn’t alleviate overcrowding issues at East Bank schools quickly enough.
The plan was drawn up after nine months of talks with various stakeholders in the parish, Joseph said.
In January, it seemed district officials might be coming to a consensus on a long-range plan for new buildings and renovations. The School Board voted to put a bond issue and property tax increase to finance the projects on the April 9 ballot.
But in February the board canceled that election, a false start somewhat similar to the one Thursday.
St. Pierre, Floyd, Bonura, Doucet and Johnson usually stick together on controversial issues, connected by the support they received from the parish teachers union during their campaigns. Dale, Bourgeois and Denapolis-Bosarge — all backed by the parish’s business community — normally vote together as well. Morgan is unallied.
Thursday was one of the times those blocs did not hold up on a divided vote.