More than a year and a half after Hurricane Isaac’s floodwaters swamped Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace, St. John the Baptist Parish voters will decide Saturday on a bond issue that would raise as much as $10.4 million to cover an expected gap between the available federal disaster recovery money and the actual cost of rebuilding the shuttered school.
Propositions to renew a 4.33-mill property tax and to rededicate the proceeds of an existing sales tax for the school district are also on the ballot.
None of the three items would result in a tax increase, school officials said. The bond issue would be paid for from an existing 10-mill property tax.
After a year marked by little progress toward reopening the parish’s two closed campuses, the St. John School Board voted in September to participate in a federal pilot program to expedite repairs on Lake Pontchartrain Elementary and East St. John High School in Reserve. Officials are considering a full or partial rebuild of the elementary school, while the high school is expected to be a renovation project.
“It would be very expensive to demolish (the elementary school) and then rebuild, even on the same property, but demolition of at least part of the school is very much a possibility,” said School Board member Russ Wise.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency pilot program is intended to help communities recover more quickly after disasters and emergencies.
Jennifer Boquet, a spokeswoman for St. John schools, said the district still needs FEMA to approve its application before it can get a final verdict on how much the parish will receive for the schools. An earlier deadline for FEMA to rule was delayed from February until May 20.
The $10 million that would be raised by the bond issue would be paid back within 20 years.
If voters reject the property tax, the school system will look at renovating the existing elementary school instead of potentially building a new one, she said.
Boquet said district officials hope to have East St. John High reopened by next year and to have the elementary school rebuilt or renovated by 2017.
Getting the rebuilding projects going has been stalled by more than a monetary shortfall. School officials spent much of last year trying to choose a company to be in charge of the work.
Originally, a panel of school executives and community leaders recommended that CSRS Inc. of Baton Rouge, which had managed St. John Parish’s $46 million capital improvement plan in 2008, be chosen to oversee what was then estimated at $65 million in work on the two schools. The board instead voted to hire Hammerman & Gainer International, but it later rescinded that deal because the New Orleans disaster recovery firm was not licensed for the job.
The board has since hired All South Consulting Engineers of Metairie to manage much of the project, including negotiations with FEMA.
Elsewhere on the ballot, St. John voters are being asked to renew an existing 4.33-mill property tax for the schools for another 10 years. The almost $2 million generated annually from the millage is used to operate and maintain school buildings. The tax costs the owner of a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption about $50 a year.
A third proposition on the ballot would rededicate the proceeds from a .25 percent sales tax — first authorized in 2000 — that currently brings in $2.4 million a year, enough to provide up to $2,000 per year to every teacher. The proposition would allow the money to go to all school employees.
Boquet said the tax has generated more than the $2,000 limit per teacher in recent years, which is why officials are looking to spread the extra money around.
“We’d just like to be able to share it with everybody who has a hand in educating kids,” she said.
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