The latest plans for school construction over the next decade aren’t sitting well with East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members who represent south Baton Rouge.

Those members pressed school leaders to accelerate the building of new schools in that fast growing but school-scarce part of the parish when the plans were presented at a retreat on Saturday.

“The areas with the most children are being placed last in the plan,” said Connie Bernard, whose District 8 includes much of south Baton Rouge but has only three public schools.

As the board met Saturday at Southern University for its full day retreat, Superintendent Warren Drake and his staff presented 22 “Recommended Named Projects” that the school system is looking to build between 2019 and 2029. The promised new schools in south Baton Rouge would open no earlier than 2027, nearly a decade from now.

The construction will occur only if voters renew a 1-cent-sales tax earmarked for education – a public referendum that is scheduled for April 28. About half of the revenue from the sales tax goes to school construction. That portion of the tax is expected to generate $417 million for that purpose over the next decade. The board plans to vote on Thursday on which construction projects it will ask voters to support.

Saturday’s retreat also included a presentation on the school system’s evolving plans to improve its 32 lowest performing schools, particularly 21 neighborhood schools. The school system has until March 1 to submit it’s “strong evidence-based plans” for improving its “persistently struggling schools” and perhaps be eligible for millions of dollars in grants to fund those plans. Those plans are required by the federal 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.

But talk of school construction dominated Saturday’s discussion.

“I’m worried that we’re going to be behind the growth curve in the southeast part of the parish,” Mike Gaudet, whose District 7 abuts Bernard’s district. “All these schools (in that area) are bursting at the seams, and subdivisions are going up right and left.”

Baton Rouge school construction plans still have these pieces missing as vote looms

Gaudet suggested delaying three projects currently ahead in line — major repairs to Broadmoor Middle and Mayfair Lab, and reconstruction of Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts — so the new south Baton Rouge schools, estimated to cost $70 million, could be built years earlier. The latest plan also calls for setting aside $10 million to buy land for these new south Baton Rouge schools.

Board member Jill Dyason said that was too little money to build a new elementary, middle and a high school for the area.

“I don’t think that $70 million is going to provide the capacity we need,” Dyason said.

Dyason’s District 6 includes Woodlawn, the heart of the breakaway school district movement that culminated in the St. George incorporation movement that fell short in 2015. The St. George movement, which organizers have threatened to revive, loomed in the background Saturday but was spoken of only indirectly.

“We really need six schools,” Dyason said, alluding to the number of new schools that St. George supporters years ago promised voters they’d build if they ever won the authority to run a public school district.

Kenyetta Nelson Smith, who represents north Baton Rouge-centered District 3, was dubious. She noted that the School Board has approved new charter schools, BASIS Baton Rouge and IDEA Innovation, that will open in south Baton Rouge this fall and those schools will draw hundreds of children, limiting the demand for new neighborhood schools.

Nelson-Smith suggested waiting before building a new middle and high school in the area, a delay that would free up cash flow and perhaps allow an earlier start.

“Why not just build an elementary school and build up from there?” she said, sparking a few nods in the room.

Dyason responded that doing that wouldn’t alleviate crowding in the schools that already serve south Baton Rouge. She said the school system needs to build schools for all grades right away as well as redraw attendance zones across the parish as a way of “right-sizing” schools.

“I understand the attraction of doing just an elementary, but we have needs at the middle and high school level now,” she said.

Board members from north Baton Rouge, who had previously raised concerns about how much money was being directed to south Baton Rouge in earlier drafts, were mostly quiet on that subject Saturday.

One project that several board members urged Drake to rethink is the plan to close Broadmoor Middle, spend $15 million to renovate the 57-year-old school and then hand the 1225 Sharp Road campus over to the popular Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet, or BR FLAIM. BR FLAIM parents lobbied heavily at 10 recent community forums to have a home big enough to house middle school students as well as its current elementary students.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson said the board should stick with its decision a year ago to have BR FLAIM relocate to the former Valley Park Junior High, 4510 Bawell Street, and quit using it as a “swing space” where other schools send kids while their home campuses are rebuilt. 

Dyason suggested keeping open Broadmoor Middle even though the school has less than 400 students. She suggested expanding its attendance zone to include some students who now go to Woodlawn Middle, which has more than 900 students.

Dyason also suggested adding a new art program at Broadmoor Middle to attract even more students and naming it after recently deceased school board member “Buckskin Bill” Black. Black was a big champion of a similar program at the middle school that was closed over a decade ago as part of the resolution of the 51-year-old school desegregation case.

Board member Dawn Collins questioned moving the foreign language immersion students now at Westdale Middle School to a relocated BR FLAIM at Broadmoor Middle. She said such a move would hurt Westdale Middle and is opposed by many parents there now.

Drake said he’d re-examine the proposal, but said the foreign language program at Westdale Middle lacks space to expand.

“If you keep it at Westdale there’s no way to grow it,” Drake said. “We’re thinking big picture here.”

As Saturday’s retreat concluded, Drake said he will be meeting with his leadership team Monday to go over what board members said and think again about the projects and the construction schedule. He said they will subsequently update the project list and send it to board members as soon as possible.

The superintendent also urged board members not to let their current differences to spill over into the election campaign that will precede the April 28 vote.

“I know we have ‘One Team, One Mission’ — the motto Drake has used since he took over as superintendent in 2015 — “but I think we need to have one voice as well,” he said.

“We are not all going to get what we want, and we’re not going to all get it when we want it,” Drake cautioned.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.