School Board makes decisions on school-site consolidation
RESERVE — During a Thursday night meeting that lasted more than four hours, the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board was tasked with making several decisions on school site consolidations to resolve the District’s financial crisis.
The St. John STEM Magnet Program, which currently operates on the old Leon Godchaux Jr. High campus, will be relocated to the Freshman Academy Building at East St. John High School.
After listening to several public comments, the School Board voted against consolidating West St. John High School and West St. John Elementary School. The Board also opted not to close the Fifth Ward Elementary School site in Reserve.
Tommy Naquin, certified public accountant with Postlewaite & Netterville, shared that the School Board is facing a total yearly deficit of $11,904,000. The District’s finances may be depleted as soon as July if immediate cost-saving measures are not taken.
West St. John
The West Bank community was passionate in its opposition to consolidating West St. John Elementary and West St. John High School. Several school and community representatives stepped up to the microphone to appeal to the School Board members during the public comment portion of the discussion.
West St. John Coach Tyler Lewis said logistics needed to be ironed out before such a decision could be made. He questioned how many principals and counselors would be included in a hybrid elementary and high school, and whether high schoolers would have classes and programs taken away for the purposes of saving the budget.
Safety was also a concern when it came to potentially combining schools. Ronnie Fiest, a grandparent of a 6-year-old West St. John Elementary student, said he would not feel comfortable putting his granddaughter on a bus with 18-year-olds.
Attorney Atoundra Pierre-Lawson said the death of a community is “a slow and steady thing.”
She referred to empty buildings throughout the parish as “carcasses of hope.”
“If you choose to vote to close a school on the West Bank, you are voting for death. Not only are you voting for death; you are voting for a death that you or your predecessors helped to cause,” Pierre-Lawson said. “The price to be paid should not be borne by the children of the West Bank.”
School Board member Charo Holden agreed with Pierre-Lawson and said the fact that this item even came to the agenda felt like “a slap in the face.”
“I can’t fault our kids for the problems that we caused,” Holden said.
Superintendent Dr. Lynett Hookfin said she was in a difficult position of having to address disproportionality between the East and West Bank. While East St. John High has 1,106 students, West St. John High has only 156.
West St. John Principal Claude Hill Jr. and community member Eliza Eugene offered a solution of transporting children from the East Bank to the West Bank to increase enrollment numbers.
While decisions have not been made on increasing enrollment, the School Board members echoed the community’s voices when they voted unanimously to not consolidate the two schools.
STEM parent Yevette Scioneaux said the STEM program could be successful wherever it is located. However, she advised conducting a survey to gain parent input before making any decisions on the relocation site.
Educator Derron Cook emphasized the need for a plan and suggested having the STEM program operate on the students’ home campuses.
“At East St. John, we yanked away AP classes. We yanked away dual enrollment and honors courses,” Cook said. “We should allow those students at East St. John and West St. John to have the opportunity to take STEM courses on their campus if that is possible, so let’s continue talking.”
Eliza Eugene proposed the Board table to relocation items on the agenda and encouraged the community to become more involved in helping Dr. Hookfin and the School Board come up with a plan that a majority of people can agree on.
School Board member Debbie Schum said that, while she would love to take time to come up with a more organized plan, time was of the essence in making cost-savings decisions. She said the creation of the STEM Program contributed to over-staffing and over-spending in the district.
“In 2012-2013, we had 685 staff members and 6,174 students. In 2020-2021, we have 5,700 students and 859 employees…Four years ago, a program was introduced that was meant to serve the students of this parish. It is a good program, and it deserves to continue. But what it did was take $2.5 million every year out of funding that was used for other things,” Schum said.
Schum added that the move to the East St. John Freshman Academy will allow the District to keep the program and save $1 million.
“If we don’t make this move, we have to find $1 million somewhere else, and there’s only one place left: staffing,” she said.
School Board member Charo Holden suggested killing two birds with one stone by moving the STEM Program to West St. John to save the program and increase enrollment on the West Bank.
The School Board ultimately selected the East St. John Freshman Academy building as the new STEM location. Eight voted in favor, while Holden and Board member Ali Burl voted against the motion. Board member Clarence Triche was absent.
Fifth Ward Elementary
Thursday’s School Board agenda contained an item requesting approval to close the Fifth Ward Elementary site.
Dr. Brandi Turner, principal at Fifth Ward Elementary School, said the hardworking students and staff are often burdened with labels they do not deserve. According to Turner, the school’s frequently discussed “F” rating does not tell the larger story of growth happening every day on campus.
Speaking briefly about chloroprene emissions near the Fifth Ward site, School Board member Patrick Sanders said any air quality concerns impacting Fifth Ward are present along the Mississippi River corridor. He added that there wasn’t a definite answer on where students would be moved if the school were to shut down.
The School Board voted nine in favor, two absent to keep the Fifth Ward Elementary site open.