BR.leehighexpulsion.022219 HS 023.JPG (copy)

File photo of East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake.

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake has been pressing the School Board for months to let him hire an outside appraiser to assess all school properties as the school system embarks on 20-plus major construction projects green-lighted by voters in 2018.

The School Board, however, has held up the process as its members struggle to figure out what they want to happen.

Drake wants to make land deals for a construction program approved by voters in April 2018, when they renewed a 1-cent sales tax for 10 more years. That program includes 20-plus major construction projects, including $90 million for new schools in south Baton Rouge. About $10 million of that can be used for land purchases. The board also is weighing land swaps and purchases in connection with other projects.

In May, Drake sought to hire outside appraiser Cook Moore Davenport and Associates “to handle the preparation of purchase agreements, title and perform closing services for those properties.” The routine resolution would have allowed the superintendent to enter into purchase agreements for land, but the board would have final approval.

The board instead amended the resolution to insert itself in the purchasing process.

On Thursday, Drake returned asking the board to let him hire an outside appraiser, but this time to assess the value of just 10 properties: Arlington, Eden Park, Capitol High School, Wyandotte Center, the vacant site for the former Istrouma Middle School, the old site of Park Elementary, Goodwood Center, McAuliffe Center, Montgomery Center and Highland Elementary.

After a confused debate, the board pulled the item. Instead, it referred the issue to an internal administrative “working group” that is already looking at school facilities. The item would come back to the board only after the group has reexamined the issue. That could happen soon, but it's unclear whether that would be in time for the board's Sept. 19 regular monthly meeting.

The working group met in late August, but a couple of School Board members who learned about the meeting at the last minute weren’t able to attend. They want the group to reconvene at a time they can attend to discuss the matter further.

“I resent feeling like something is being forced down my throat, so to speak,” said board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who wasn’t able to make the working group's meeting.

Drake said that since the board balked at appraising all the properties in May, he shrunk the list with the idea of assessing a few at a time.

“One of the reasons is there are 10 on here is to bundle it so we can get a better price,” Drake explained.

Several board members questioned why these properties are the ones to be appraised but not others. Board member Dadrius Lanus was especially concerned about the inclusion of Capital High.

That high school, which has been a series of charter schools over the past 11 years, is still school system property. Alumni at the school would like Capitol High to return to its roots as a neighborhood high school, but the school system has yet to decide what it wants to do.

“We start talking about appraising the property; it sounds like we’re going to sell it,” Lanus said.

“This is not to put Capital High School up for sale,” Drake responded, saying he just wants to know what district properties are worth.

Lanus said he’d prefer to assess all properties at once, rather than “piecemeal.” Drake agreed, saying that's what he’s wanted to do all along.

But other board members had different concerns.

A few said they’d first like to see the board develop a “master plan” for the whole school system before appraising all properties. Drake said the “tax plan” — the name school officials gave to the 10-year construction program voters approved last year — is a master plan. A few board members disagree.

Board member Connie Bernard said the board had enough information to let Drake hire an appraiser, but couldn’t persuade her colleagues.

She said that failing to get appraisals leaves Drake and General Counsel Gwynn Shamlin without good information to make important land deals for the school district.

“We’re not playing very good poker here,” she said.

“We haven’t given Mr. Shamlin and Mr. Drake, the tools they need to make good decisions for us,” she added.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.