A newly rebuilt Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace is scheduled to welcome students again Monday, more than five years after Hurricane Isaac destroyed the building and left students scattered among other campuses.
Construction was plagued by delays. But school officials finally cut the ribbon Saturday on the 100,000-square-foot, $23 million building, which can accommodate 800 students and sports a gym, fine arts classrooms, science labs and a media center.
It also comes with state-of-the-art safety features, officials said, including automatic locks, security cameras and separate drop-off points for buses and private vehicles.
Perhaps most important, it's built 4 feet off the ground — a feature designed to keep it from flooding again, as required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Architecturally, (the new building is) beautiful," said Russ Wise, St. John the Baptist Parish School Board member. "It’s going to make the entire parish look more attractive."
It will certainly be a step up for students, who have been taking classes since 2014 in portable trailers parked in the back of East St. John Preparatory School, a setup that cost $4 million.
Before that, Lake Pontchartrain Elementary's 650 students were split among six different campuses, some as far as 20 miles from the original building.
Wise attributed much of the delay in getting a new school built to FEMA, saying the agency spent nearly two years vacillating over whether to repair the severely damaged building or replace it.
Ultimately, federal officials decided to fund the construction of a new building at the same location, and the prospects looked good for the school to be finished at least by 2017.
But there were further delays at the School Board, which at the time of FEMA's decision, in 2014, was politically divided and spent nearly a year arguing over which company should receive a $13 million consulting contract to oversee demolition and rebuilding.
Ultimately, the board settled on HGI, only to have the state Licensing Board for Contractors threaten to take the board to court because the company didn't have the proper license.
"Politics got in the way a bit during that process," Wise said.
Nevertheless, the school's pupils don't seem to have missed a beat. Performance scores have climbed recently at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary, according to Jennifer Boquet, a spokeswoman for the School Board.
The school improved its performance score by 10.1 points and has been named a "top gains" school by the Louisiana Department of Education.
"The Lake Pontchartrain Elementary staff has not only adapted but excelled under the circumstances, proving that walls are just that and it’s really the people inside who count," Boquet said.