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School Board takes 1st steps toward demolition after collapse of Godchaux School

RESERVE — More than 110 years after its construction, the roof of the deteriorating Leon Godchaux Grammar School caved in amid wind and rain around 8 p.m. Monday night.

The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board is now tasked with the demolition of the historic structure, a process complicated by a strong possibility of asbestos within its collapsed walls.

During a Land and Facilities meeting held today, committee members approved a motion instructing administration to immediately secure the site with fencing. Earlier this week, School Board President Nia Mitchell observed several cars attempting to turn into the parking lot to get a closer look as yellow caution tape went up around the structure.

Committee members also approved motions to contact the Department of Environmental Quality to request an environmental evaluation, and to contact the St. John District Attorney’s Office to look into the legality of declaring an emergency.

Gene Borne, a resident of Reserve who owns property next to the school, attended the meeting on behalf of neighbors concerned about the asbestos risk.

“The residents were told by the School Board for many years that the reason the building wasn’t being repaired is because it was full of asbestos, which meant it would be financially unfeasible to do any work. Now that we have to do something, the residents are a little concerned about how that part of it is going to be addressed,” Borne said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asbestos refers to fibrous minerals that, when handled, can remain in the air and be easily inhaled. The minerals were used for decades in insulation and other commercial products, and the CDC states that asbestos exposure has been linked to several life-threatening diseases including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

St. John Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Lynett Hookfin expressed concerns about employee safety, noting several Central Office employees are stationed in an annex building in close proximity to the structure.

Hookfin has monitored the building’s condition each day and noticed changes in the structure from Wednesday to Thursday. She was also concerned to see the amount of bees coming in and out of the building.

Due to the uncertainty of the structure’s integrity in the coming days, photos and other assets were moved out of the Godchaux Grammar cafeteria, which is an unattached building located next to the damaged structure.

School Board meetings are often held in the Godchaux Grammar cafeteria. Mitchell said next week’s meeting will be held at another school site as a safety precaution.

As of Thursday, it was undetermined whether insurance would be able to help with demolition costs. According to School Board member Ali Burl, a claim consultant assessed the site on Wednesday but was unable to physically enter the building.

John Faucheux with Louisiana Insurance Service said a site adjustor and consultant must make a determination of the cause of loss and whether it is covered by insurance.

“That building has been an issue with the district for quite some time. We discussed taking that building off the policy, because in essence, it was uninsurable… It was really not prudent to do it, but because it was part of the school district’s assets, we kept it on the policy,” Faucheux said.

He added, “Property insurance does not cover asbestos removal unless the asbestos that exists is damaged by a covered peril of loss. For example, if a fire damaged asbestos that was present, insurance would pay to remove it. What we have now is a building that collapsed, not necessarily by wind or rain. We have to find out if that is a covered peril.”

If the building loss is covered by insurance, the St. John School Board would still need to pay a $100,000 deductible in accordance with the policy.

The Department of Environmental Quality would first need to complete an assessment to confirm the asbestos risk.

“The School District is kind of hand-tied until DEQ physically comes out and makes their assessment,” Faucheux said.

Burl said state representatives have also been contacted.

“Hopefully, with it being historical, they will be able to give us some funds to help with the costs,” Burl said.

Construction began on the Leon Godchaux School in 1908. It opened as the first high school on the East Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish in 1909.

The building later served as a grammar school for generations of students who remember it fondly. The structure has been vacant since the 1980s, and the building fell into deplorable condition over time.
In 2014, the cost estimate of restoring the 15,000 square foot building totaled nearly $5 million. According to Burl, there was discussion in the past about tearing down the historic building, constructing a new metal building on the site, and reusing the original bricks to maintain a piece of the old structure.

Community member Eliza Eugene was involved in the demolition of a historic building in New Orleans in a situation that mirrored the current state of the Godchaux School. The roof had collapsed and asbestos had been disturbed.

Eugene advised the Land and Facilities Committee of the process she went through.

“It was a historic building, but because it had asbestos, the city could not save anything,” she said.

Updates on the Godchaux Grammar demolition will be shared when information becomes available.