desk stock file photo school (copy)

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is entering into negotiations to buy up to 46 acres of land just west of the intersection of I-10 and Siegen Lane, land that could become home to the first new neighborhood public schools in southeast Baton Rouge in decades.

The prospective land purchase is an important step in a long-running effort to build more schools in this school-scarce portion of the parish. To finance the purchase, the school system plans to tap into a $10 million pot of money established by voters in April 2018 when they renewed a 1-cent sales tax earmarked for education. The money is designated to buy land somewhere in the vicinity.

The effort, though, is behind schedule. The timetable approved by voters called the purchase of the land months ago. That timetable was set back by the coronavirus pandemic as well the shortage of suitable property in the area.

Another delaying factor has been uncertainty resulting from the successful October 2019 vote to incorporate a new city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish. That vote is being challenged in court. If St. George wins its court challenge, backers plan to turn their attention to creating a companion school district, which would carve territory out of the parish school system.

The School Board on Thursday night voted 6-3 to start negotiations to buy the site, which is accessible from North Reiger Road and Reitz Avenue. The 45.8 acre site is actually two plots of land with two different owners. The property, which includes a three acre lake, fronts the north side of 1-10.

Unlike three other sites under consideration, that site is within the boundaries of the proposed new city of St. George. The property, however, abuts the city of Baton Rouge and could be annexed into it.

Board members Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard and Dadrius Lanus voted No, all citing the St. George issue.

“I would like to see that we have any property annexed to our city before I feel comfortable voting on it,” Lanus said.

Board President Mike Gaudet, however, argued that the property's location need not be a holdup, saying that future annexation into the city of Baton Rouge is always an option.

Being outside St. George’s city boundaries is no guarantee that the property won’t stay out of a future St. George school district. That school district need not have the same boundaries as the city.

Breakaway school districts in Baker, Central and Zachary all have different boundaries than their cities. In the case of Zachary, the school district is much larger.

Another area of uncertainty is what kind of school or schools the district will ultimately build on any property purchased. In addition to buying land, the renewal of the sales tax set aside $70 million to build new schools in the “southern part of the district.”

The approved construction schedule called for an elementary school to start construction this school year, followed by a middle/high school in 2024-25.

School officials, however, aren’t sure whether they will stick with that plan.

Board member David Tatman, whose District 9 includes much of the area, suggested flipping the schedule in order to build a high school first.

“We just need relief at Tara and at Woodlawn (high schools),” Tatman said, noting that the attendance zones for those schools are much larger than they should be.

Changing the construction schedule would require the approval of a special citizens committee established as part of the tax plan.

Board member Connie Bernard, whose District 8 also includes much of the area, said she wants the district to purchase land large enough to build an elementary school as well.

“I’m just suggesting we buy as big a piece as would be suitable and available to us,” Bernard said.

Commercial Realtor George Kurz of Kurz & Hebert has been leading the effort to find property for the school system to purchase in south Baton Rouge. Kurz said that public entities like the school system have legal limits on how much they can spend for property.

“We can only pay what the appraised value is,” Kurz said. “We can’t go into usurious mode.”

Of the three other sites, only a 62.6-acre section north of Perkins Road has attracted much discussion. It’s larger, but more of the property is at risk of flooding and there is concern about the quality of bus access from Perkins Road.

Board member Collins offered a substitute motion to start negotiating for the purchase of both the Siegen and the Perkins properties. That motion failed by a 4-5 margin. Collins suggested having a second property under negotiation might lead to a better deal.

But Gaudet rejected that idea. A retired vice president from Albemarle, he said buying commercial property is different than buying a house and that it’s costly to do the engineering work needed to determine the appropriate value of the property. He also said there are advantages to picking one property on which to focus negotiations.

“I don’t feel like we would have our hands tied behind our back if we only had one site,” Gaudet said. “Because you can negotiate very hard if they know that when you walk, you’re gone and you’re not coming back.”


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