St. James School Board accepts Yuhuang Chemical’s $10.1 million bid to buy high school, deal depends on voters _lowres

Yuhuang Chemical site -- Advocate graphic

The St. James Parish School Board accepted Yuhuang Chemical Inc.’s $10.1 million bid Monday to buy St. James High School, but officials cautioned it would be several years before the River Road school closes and that the deal hinges on a bond issue headed to voters May 2.

The only high school on the west bank of St. James, the 46-acre Wildcat campus, with its live oak-lined boulevard, is already near oil tank farms but is expected to have Yuhuang Chemical’s massive $1.85 billion methanol plant built behind it in the next few years. The company has an option on 1,100 acres, with river access running near the high school.

Announced in July, the plant was lured to Louisiana by historically low natural gas prices and, until recently, high oil prices. A mix of traditional and specialized state incentives also were offered by the Jindal administration, including $11.25 million in performance-based state grants for infrastructure and river access.

School officials have been discussing the need to get out of the way of industry and the sale of the high school for months after the Yuhuang announcement and talk of another unnamed proposed plant nearby.

The parish master plan, adopted a few years ago, also earmarks the northern half of St. James for industry with its broad tracts of vacant riverfront land, though the area is pocketed with small but historic black communities, some of which can be traced to the decades after Emancipation.

The board approved the bid Monday without opposition and with little comment. The sale price is about $250,000 above the appraised value of $9.85 million. Yuhuang made the only offer.

School Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce said Monday the bid proposal was put forward pending approval of a nearly $56 million, 20-year bond issue that will be supported by extending the life of an existing 10-mill property tax.

“It (the bid language) doesn’t mean that we won’t … sell it, but it gives us that flexibility because we’d have to figure out how to pay for it if we can’t do the bond issue,” he told reporters afterward.

The new school would be the centerpiece of the plan the board gave an early nod to last month to upgrade existing schools on the east and west banks, make other improvements and reorder some grade levels and specialized programs.

The new high school is planned on a 54-acre tract off La. 3127 in Vacherie where the school’s new football stadium opened last year.

Luce has said in public hearings that if the school system tried to build the high school without the bond issue, the system would have to tap operating funds and, likely, have to make sharp staff reductions.

The bond issue also hinges on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the school system’s long-standing desegregation case.

Under the plan, school officials are banking on the proceeds of the high school’s sale in addition to the sale of bonds. Luce said Yuhuang would pay one-third of the total sale price when the sale closes, another third when new high school construction starts and a final third when the system leaves the old St. James High.

“So it’s trying to push us quickly to get the new St. James High built,” Luce said of company’s payment terms.

Luce said several steps remain to complete the sale and expects the high school construction to take two to three years. Yuhuang plans to start construction of the first of three phases next year and expects to finish it in 2018.

The company has come under fire in China, where it is based, for its environmental track record, though Jindal has said the plan would meet state and federal standards.

According to a notice for the air permit, the first phase is expected to produce 5,000 metric tons of methanol per day but also release nearly 60 tons per year of toxic air pollutants, primarily methanol and hexane. The plant would also release nearly 32 tons per year of ammonia and dozens of tons each of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and particulates.

The state Department of Environmental Quality plans a public hearing on the permit 6 p.m. March 12 at the St. James Reception Hall, 2455 La. 18, Vacherie.

Michael Brassett III, a Yuhuang attorney, said in an email it became clear that it would be in Yuhuang’s best interests to buy the school after company officials spoke with parish government and school leaders. He added that Yuhuang officials are focused on safety and recognized that the landscape’s change from agriculture to industry “necessitated this action.”

“And we are happy to help facilitate the parish leaders to achieve this goal,” Brassett wrote.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.