A long-planned $17 million career-focused high school moved closer to breaking ground Thursday as the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board gave tentative approval to seeking bids to construct the 34,000-square-foot structure in Melrose East.

The board also advanced a plan to shift to a new student information management system at a cost of more than $1 million the first year and $448,000 a year after that.

Both items earned tentative approval unanimously — board member Dawn Collins was absent — and will return to the board Feb. 16 for final approval.

The new career high school was one of several construction projects named on the spring 2008 ballot when voters renewed a 1-cent sales tax. It has been of avid interest to a handful of prominent business leaders interested in more training programs to produce skilled workers.

If finally approved, bids would be opened April 4 with construction starting later that month. The completion date would be August 2018, two years later than originally planned.

The proposed school would be situated within a nearly 200-acre still-to-be-built, mixed-use residential development known as Ardendale, formerly Smiley Heights. The development is just north of Florida Boulevard and stretches between Ardenwood Drive and Lobdell Avenue. The new high school would be in the northeast corner of the tract, across the street from Baton Rouge Community College’s new automotive training center, which opened in August.

The high school, currently called Ardendale Technical Education Center, is set to offer training sessions twice a day in four areas: computer science, medical fields, skilled crafts and manufacturing. Specific training would range from plumbing to emergency medical technician to web design. Students would come either in the morning or in the afternoon from other public high schools in Baton Rouge. No more than 150 students would get training at the school at any given time.

No one spoke against the project Thursday and board members asked few questions.

Ed Jenkins, program manager with CSRS/Tillage Construction, presented the architectural plans prepared by Domain Architecture in Baton Rouge. Jenkins said the construction was delayed because the school system decided to acquire another 11-acre plot for the school, putting the size of the entire site at about 20 acres.

Jenkins said there’s some room to expand the school in the future in the northeast corner but that area is considered wetlands, though he said he thinks they are man-made and not natural and that that wetlands designation could possibly be changed in the future if need be.

The shift to a new student information management system is something school officials have been weighing for months. The school system currently uses eSchool, created by Pennsylvania-based Sungard, and has for years used other Sungard products.

If finally approved Feb. 16, the shift would take place by July 1.

Deputy Superintendent Michelle Clayton said 84 percent of the public school districts in Louisiana use a software system that technically goes by the name JCampus, though most still call it what it’s been called for years, JPAMs. Clayton used it for years when she worked for Zachary public schools.

She said the software, made by Shreveport-based EDgear, has more capabilities than eSchool and is closely aligned with the data requirements of the Louisiana Department of Education.

“We feel (JPAMs) will really add value to our schools and provide a more efficient model for what we do in the school district,” Clayton said.

Areas where Clayton says JPAMs beats eSchools is it is accessible through any web browser rather than just Internet Explorer, has better customer service, offers a larger variety of features that work much better, requires fewer steps to carry processes and allows users to create a wide variety of reports rather than relying on specially trained personnel.

Clayton said the school system’s version of eSchool works only with versions of Internet Explorer so old they will soon no longer be serviced and would need expensive upgrading if the school system keeps the software.

“We are at a crossroad right now,” Clayton said.

The initial cost of shifting to JPAMs would be at least $1 million but could go up to $200,000 more depending on how many features the school system adopts. Clayton said the current estimate is that after the initial expense, JPAMs would cost about $3,000 less a year than eSchool.

“It’s not a lot, but it will allow us a lot more capability,” she said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier