desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members clashed Monday night over whether to spend millions of dollars on new schools in school-scarce south Baton Rouge now that much of that area has voted to incorporate into the new City of St. George.

“I think it would be entirely irresponsible to make a financial investment in another city,” said Board Vice President Tramelle Howard.

Instead, Howard suggested possible ways to compel charter school groups to open schools in south Baton Rouge to fill any demand for additional schools.

St. George supporters hope to use their success in the Oct. 12 vote to incorporate as a new city to persuade the legislature, then voters, to create a companion St. George school district. If successful, it would be the fourth independent school district in the parish, following Baker, Central and Zachary.

The vote to incorporate, though, has raised questions about $80 million that voters approved in April 2018 to build as many as three new neighborhood schools somewhere in south Baton Rouge.

Those projects, part of a decade-long $362 million package of school construction, were conceived partially in hopes of blunting demand for a St. George school districts. But St. George supporters launched a second petition drive just days after the School Board agreed to send the construction package to voters.

Board members differed Monday over whether it still makes sense to build these schools, with some in support of sites in St. George and others opposed.

“I am committed to serving all of the children in the school district, including those who live in St. George,” said board member Connie Bernard.

Board member Jill Dyason on Monday said many families in the area don’t send their kids to public schools because they were never built — the southeastern corner of the parish south of I-10 has no public schools.

“You don’t have students where you don’t have schools because you haven’t given them anything to go to,” she said.

Board member Dadrius Lanus agreed with Howard that charter schools could fill unmet demand for students.

“Nobody wants to take away from the parents of students in the southern part of the parish, because they pay taxes as well, but we need to be smart stewards of our dollars,” Lanus said.

Board President Mike Gaudet, however, said state law limits the district’s influence over charter schools and where they locate.

“I am all for it, but we can’t tell charter schools where to go,” Gaudet said.

Monday's special meeting was the School Board’s first hard look since they were approved 18 months ago at the 22 “named” construction projects, to be built between now and 2029. No votes were taken.

Any major change to the construction package, known as the Tax Plan, would require approval of the School Board, as well as a special citizens committee that oversees spending arising from the 1-cent sales tax that voters renewed in April 2018.

The Tax Plan envisions spending $10 million for land for the planned  new schools during the 2019-20 school year, followed by $25 million for new elementary school, with work to start at earliest during the 2020-21 school year.

Another $45 million is to come for construction of schools in the upper grades — either a middle/high school, or separate middle and high schools — but that would not begin until 2024 at earliest.

On Monday night, George Kurz of Kurz & Hebert Real Estate gave board members an update on his efforts to nail down property for the new south Baton Rouge schools, along with land to rebuild and expand University Terrace Elementary and for planned improvements to nearby McKinley High.

Kurz said south Baton Rouge has a limited number of properties large enough for a school and some properties require expensive remediation to due to wetlands concerns.

He showed the board 11 sites he’s been focusing on. After some discussion, board members expressed interest in hearing more about five of them.

Dyason said the board needs to move fast: “(The properties) are going away as we are talking,” she said.

Several board members, however, said they want an impact study done on all the potential impacts of St. George.

“We need to have the data in front of us so we can make a good decision,” said board member Dawn Collins.

Gaudet warned there are so many unknowns that it’s hard to gauge the potential impact of a St. George school district, including what its boundaries will be.

Collins, however, said an educated guess is better than nothing.

Board member David Tatman said he wants to know if a St. George school district could force the school system to change or abandon other planned school construction, including a $30 million plan to rebuild the popular Mayfair Lab School.

“I don’t want to be telling somebody at Mayfair, that if this thing happens, your school may never get done,” Tatman said.

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