desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Two routine construction items prompted an unlikely amount of debate Thursday as East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members pressed for more attention for pet projects of their own.

The School Board ended up advancing one of the items, a $1.5 million addition to La Belle Aire Elementary; it will come up for a final vote at the board’s Oct. 15 regular meeting.

The board, however, couldn’t muster the five votes needed for the other item, a $3 million addition to Belfair Montessori Magnet School. Board rules require that item has to wait 60 days, or until December, before it can be reconsidered.

Both projects are on a list of named projects — often referred to as “the Tax Plan” — voters approved in April 2018 when they renewed a 1-cent sales tax earmarked for education. Forty-one percent of that penny tax goes toward school construction work that will continue through 2029.

The La Belle Aire project passed by a 7-0 vote; board members Evelyn Ware-Jackson and David Tatman were absent. The project calls for constructing a new “collaborative/flex space” at the elementary school, complete with a modular stage and flexible tables and seating. It’s slated for completion by August 2021.

Although it was the next item on the agenda, the Belfair Montessori project fell short because board members Connie Bernard and Dawn Collins left shortly after the La Belle Aire vote. Only five members, the minimum for a quorum, were left in attendance. The final vote was 4-1. It needed five votes to pass.

Board President Mike Gaudet was the lone no vote. The project calls for replacing three temporary classrooms that serve middle school grades with a nine-classroom permanent building. It’s scheduled for completion in November 2021.

Gaudet noted there are only 76 students in those grades at Belfair presently and wondered whether the planned addition would represent “overbuilding.”

“I would like to see some data justifying nine classrooms at that middle school,” he said.

Associate Superintendent Adam Smith, sitting in for Supt. Leslie Brown, who is on medical leave, said new classrooms are meant to make the program more attractive and give it room to expand, room it currently lacks.

“It’s not just classroom space, it’s space for the electives that generally a middle school would have,” Smith said.

Most of the construction discussion on Thursday focused on other projects not on the agenda.

Board member Jill Dyason grilled staff to speed up the purchase of $10 million worth of land in southeast Baton Rouge for a new elementary school. According to the Tax Plan, that land was to be purchased last year, but hasn’t been yet. She said the new school is long overdue and doesn’t want to see it delayed further.

“I don’t want the students in that building any later than we originally planned,” Dyason said.

Board member Dadrius Lanus responded by noting that he too needs a project in his north Baton Rouge district, a new middle school.

Lanus said the current setup of having middle school students on the campus of Glen Oaks High School isn’t working and said the board should shift money to add a middle school on property adjacent to nearby Forest Height elementary school.

“These parents need to know where they have something in their area, where they don’t have their child to the other side of town to go to a proper middle school,” Lanus said.

Gaudet said the Tax Plan was flawed because it was sent to voters before the board updated its strategic plan, which was last updated in 2013. He said any more changes to the current Tax Plan should await completing a fresh update of that strategic plan.

Board attorney Gwynn Shamlin cautioned the board that the Tax Plan was set up to not be easily altered, it has a special Oversight Committee made up of local residents, and the committee needs to sign off on any changes.

“Just remember that your constituents spoke specifically about what they expected,” Shamlin said.


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