When Istrouma High School closed last year, there was no longer a public high school in the 70805 ZIP code of Baton Rouge. The pool in an adjacent neighborhood, at the BREC Gus Young Park, has been closed the past two years and is set for demolition in July.
The loss of those two institutions has residents of the Eden Park neighborhood worried about the effects on the young people in the area. And petitions are circulating to reopen both.
However, BREC held a firm line at a crowded community meeting Thursday, saying the corroded pool — which has seen declining use over the years — simply must be converted to something else.
“This has not been a decision that we’ve played around with or taken lightly,” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said.
BREC started tracking pool attendance in 2009 and found that only four to five children were coming to the Gus Young pool per day. The closure in summer 2013 came about because of cracks in the concrete liner.
The following year, BREC said it didn’t have the budget to make the repairs, Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said.
“Yes, the numbers went down because it was never updated,” Marcelle said. “Naturally people are going to gravitate to where the pools are nicer.”
Marcelle said she realizes the closure of the Gus Young pool was probably coming all along as part of BREC’s new strategic plan. But she objected to how the decision was made, saying people from the area “weren’t at the table.”
“We would have never agreed to such a plan,” she said. Many people in her district do not have transportation to get across town to the other BREC pools, she said.
BREC no longer has aquatic facilities at any of its more than 100 small neighborhood parks, like Gus Young. In the 2014 strategic plan, it shifted its focus and resources to 12 larger community parks — the only locations where aquatic facilities would be upgraded. Howell Park and City-Brooks Park, both community parks with pools, are within about 2 miles of Gus Young.
Though BREC officials have mentioned splash pads as a cheaper alternative to residents who insist on a pool at Gus Young, “we don’t have the money for that either,” Marcelle said. The Gus Young park has a budget of only $150,000 for improvements over the next 10 years. A splash pad or pool would be possible only with private fundraising.
“We have not neglected this park,” McKnight insisted. An array of programs and a new playground are available there, she said — but the pool remained a sticking point for those in attendance.
Ted Jack, BREC assistant superintendent for planning and park resources, said most pools have a 20-year lifespan, and the 48-year-old Gus Young pool faced a number of problems, including rusting pipes and cracks in its concrete. Other older BREC pools had those problems, too — including those at Howell and City-Brooks, but as community parks, they were renovated.
There are limited funds for pools in the BREC system, Jack said.
“If we go and build a pool in a neighborhood park, all the other neighborhood parks are going to say, ‘Where is ours?’ ” Jack said. “There’s not enough resources to do that.”
Some attendees took issue with BREC’s recent construction of the Liberty Lagoon water park, located in the center of the parish. It charges an entrance fee and is not convenient to people in the Eden Park area, Marcelle said.
However, Dale Auzenne, assistant superintendent for recreation programs and facilities, said Liberty Lagoon attracted 157 families from 70802 and 70805 in one week during a study period.
Still, people are upset about the loss of facilities that provide positive outlets for the children in the area. Istrouma High School closed last year, after two years of operation under the state’s Recovery School District.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said negotiations with the state to reopen the school and return it to the East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System are ongoing. About 4,000 people signed a petition during a 10-day drive in April to convince the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that they were serious, he said.
Part of their passion to reopen the school stems from the fact that 70805, where Istrouma is located, has a high crime rate.
“If you don’t have a high school in 70805, you have … crime in 70805,” Washington said.
It is also unfair that students must leave their neighborhood to attend Woodlawn, Tara, Belaire and Scotlandville high schools, where they face overcrowded classrooms, he said.
Washington wants the new Istrouma to offer both academic- and career-based tracks. He hopes it will be returned to the EBR system by the 2016-17 school year.
Byron Sharper, president of the Istrouma alumni group, said the area is struggling as schools, the Baton Rouge General-Mid City location’s emergency room and the Gus Young pool have all been shuttered.
However, the pool closure isn’t final yet, Sharper said. “That’s not going to happen.”