Despite some public discontent over the slow pace of repairs at two schools that remain shuttered since Hurricane Isaac in 2012, all but two members of the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board coasted to re-election last week when they drew no challengers during the three-day qualifying period for the Nov. 4 election.
But the two announced challengers, former board member Matthew Ory and political newcomer Shawn Wallace, say they were prompted to run in part because of concern about the slow progress toward reopening the two storm-battered schools.
Ory, 46, of LaPlace, previously held the District 10 seat for 15 years before losing to Rodney Nicholas in October 2010.
Ory, who lost the three-way race by 60 votes, said that after spending four years watching from the sidelines, he’s become frustrated at “the snail’s pace of improvement, as far as putting the schools back to the way they should be.” He said the board’s 11 members spend too much time fighting with each another and, in some cases, micromanaging the superintendent.
“Chaos is the best word for it,” he said Monday about what he sees as a lack of chemistry among the board. “It’s an embarrassment. It’s totally embarrassing.”
Wallace, 43, of LaPlace, is challenging District 9 incumbent Lowell Bacas. Wallace, a lifelong St. John resident, said his decision to run was spurred by questions about how long Lake Pontchartrain Elementary in LaPlace and East St. John High in Reserve will remain closed.
“It’s not yet gotten rebuilt,” Wallace said about the elementary school. “I have some concerns about it, and I thought that I would be the person to get involved with it and try to get some answers for them, and continue to work with the other School Board members to get the ball rolling a little bit faster.”
Still, some of the nine members who were elected to new four-year terms said the lack of a full slate of challengers suggests residents aren’t overly dissatisfied with their job performance over the last four years.
From the start, getting the rebuilding projects in motion has been slowed by more than a monetary shortfall. School officials haggled for months over trying to choose a company to be in charge of the work, but board member Albert “Ali” Burl III said Monday that school officials were simply doing their due diligence.
“People probably realized that the decisions that were made in regard to hiring a contractor were in the best interest of the school district,” said Burl, who was re-elected to his District 2 seat. “Ultimately, instead of rushing into it and just trying to patchwork the school, it may have benefited the school district.”
Board member Russ Wise said he considers the lack of challengers to be “at least a little bit of an endorsement of what we’ve been trying to do.”
“Frankly, I was quite surprised when qualifying closed that only two of the 11 incumbents had any opposition at all,” said Wise, who represents District 8. “We’ve had our share of turmoil in the past, and I would’ve thought there would be some people attracted to that, but apparently not.”
On the positive side, Wise said, the district’s credit rating has improved, more students are graduating than ever before and schools have increased early-college-credit and Advanced Placement opportunities for students.
“While we’ve had our share of shouting matches, at the same time, we’ve been getting a lot of things done, so maybe people are willing to let us go on and keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.
Meanwhile, demolition and repair work at East St. John High is slated to begin this week, schools spokeswoman Jennifer Boquet said.
Work at the high school will include demolishing some areas of the campus as well as removing mold and cleaning the buildings. The heating and cooling systems will be upgraded, and the exterior of two buildings will be replaced. In addition, new flooring, ceiling tiles and wallboards will be installed.
Work at the elementary school is still in the preliminary planning stages, Boquet said. That building is expected to be demolished and a new, elevated school built in its place.
Boquet said school officials are optimistic that East St. John High will reopen by the 2015-16 school year and Lake Pontchartrain a year later.
In addition to $39.3 million allocated for the projects by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, additional money will come from a bond issue St. John voters approved in May. It will raise as much as $10.4 million.
The bond issue, which passed with 65 percent of the vote, will be paid for from an existing 10-mill property tax.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.