Despite the shock of cold weather, Lafayette Parish school system officials and Acadiana High School’s Air Force JROTC cadets were all smiles while breaking ground on the program’s new facility Wednesday.

About 150 JROTC cadets, school district officials, band members and Acadiana High staff members gathered in the school’s gym Wednesday morning to celebrate the groundbreaking.

The new, approximately 4,160-square-foot facility will include two classrooms with folding partitions, interactive work boards, boys and girls’ locker rooms with bathrooms, a private office for faculty, secured uniform and weapons storage, and a roughly 2,500 square foot covered drill deck, Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair said.

Master Sgt. Tina Viltz-Flucas, senior aerospace science instructor, founded Acadiana High’s JROTC program in 2002 and has led more than 2,100 cadets since. The master sergeant served in the Air Force for 24 years.

Viltz-Flucas said the JROTC program instills cadets with self-confidence, self-discipline and leadership skills and provides a platform for all students to succeed, especially those with limited means “who otherwise may not even be able to envision a future.”

The program currently operates out of a portable classroom building and a donated storage unit on the school grounds. The storage unit is now rusty and leaking and the program’s 120 cadets get cramped in the limited space, she said.

The JROTC leader said they’re grateful for the school and district’s support.

“What this day commemorates to us is good things do come to those who not only wait, but those who labor while they wait,” Viltz-Flucas said. “We’ve managed for 17 years with what was available. We wanted and needed more but we didn’t moan or complain.”

The program leader said she expects the new facility will attract more potential cadets and families.

Cadet Major Makenzie Grubb, an Acadiana High senior, said she’s sad to miss the benefits of the new building but is excited the program is receiving support.

As the corps operations squadron commander, Grubb said she oversees discipline, uniforms and the flight leaders for each JROTC class period. Assuming that level of responsibility wouldn’t have been possible before JROTC, she said.

Before joining, Grubb said she was shy, quiet and didn’t know how to speak in front of a group. Now she helps lead dozens of peers and knows how to stand up for her beliefs and others, she said.

The JROTC program helped her find a place to belong, she said.

“It was like a family for me. I didn’t fit in any particular group, but ROTC was like a family,” Grubb said.

The Acadiana High construction project is one of two benefiting JROTC programs in the parish. The Navy JROTC program at Ovey Comeaux High School is also slated to receive a new facility.

Kyle Bordelon, LPSS director of facilities and planning, said the Comeaux facility will include four classrooms, storage spaces for rifles and uniforms, boys and girls’ locker rooms and changing spaces, bathrooms, a private office space for faculty and an outdoor drill deck.

Two of the classrooms will include folding partitions that can transform the space into an indoor air rifle range. The new Comeaux building will be roughly 6,000 square feet with a similar sized drill deck, Bordelon said.

District 8 school board member Erick Knezek, a United States Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran, spearheaded the projects.

The Wednesday groundbreaking at Acadiana High and the Nov. 4 groundbreaking at Comeaux High were scheduled early to allow Knezek to attend as a board member. The single-term board member elected not to run for reelection to focus on his growing business.

“Of all of our accomplishments in the last five years I think this one of the most important things that we’ve done,” he said.

Knezek said whether the JROTC cadets join enlisted service after graduation or not, their military training will instill a deep yearning to do more in the community. The brick and mortar improvements recognize that and provide the JROTC cadets a tangible foundation to continue growing their programs.

“We’re going to spend about $1 million on each of our JROTC facilities, but the community is going to get that back a hundredfold,” Knezek said.

There’s currently $1,015,000 budgeted for the Acadiana High project and $1.25 million slated for the Comeaux High project. Architects’ Design Studio, the architecture firm contracted for both projects, has requested both preliminary construction budgets be increased after meetings with the schools.

The architecture firm requested $92,500 be added to the Acadiana High project and $117,000 be added to the Comeaux High project.

The increased costs stem from increasing the wall heights to allow for indoor flag and rifle drills, raising the floor elevation to comply with Lafayette Consolidated Government requirements and relocation of utilities, among other project needs, according to a letter previously filed on the school board agenda.

Approval of the overage costs was slated for a vote at Wednesday’s school board meeting but was pulled to provide more time for questioning, board member Britt Latiolais said. Latiolais represents District 5, which includes Acadiana High.

The board member said the projects have already been reviewed and approved twice. Unexpected expenses are anticipated in any project, but new costs need to be considered seriously and more questions need to be asked, he said.

“I don’t feel comfortable asking all those questions and making a decision all in one night,” Latiolais said.

Construction bidding for the project is scheduled for December. The school system hopes to begin construction and the project is scheduled to take between nine and 12 months. Weather permitting, the new ROTC facilities will be ready in the fall, Bordelon said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com