Audience questions possible closure of St. James Parish school

Photo provided -- St. James Parish School Superintendent Alonzo Luce.
Photo provided -- St. James Parish School Superintendent Alonzo Luce.

The St. James Parish School Board has decided to put on hold a proposal to close Fifth Ward Elementary School after community outcry prompted board members to slow the process down and schedule several public meetings to discuss the school’s future.

One such meeting took place Wednesday evening when about 130 parents and area residents gathered at Fifth Ward Elementary School, located on the parish’s west bank in St. James, to hear why the School Board recently targeted the school for closure.

School Superintendent Alonzo Luce told the crowd there would be four more such public meetings to discuss the possible closings of Fifth Ward and Lutcher Elementary schools.

The School Board now plans to make a final decision in April, Luce said.

But Luce’s promises and a presentation by a consulting firm hired by the School Board to plan future facilities in the parish that pointed to Fifth Ward Elementary as the district’s least cost-effective school didn’t sit well with people in the audience Wednesday night.

“It seems to me the decision is already made,” parish resident Delicia White said. “Why are we hearing about a decision that is already made?”

Calvin LeBeouf, another audience member, said he wanted to see a committee made up of residents with ties to Fifth Ward Elementary School examine the data gathered by the consulting firm.

“You can make the data fit the curve,” LeBeouf said of the study targeting Fifth Ward Elementary School for closure.

While acknowledging “the data is very clear from certain parts,” Luce said no decision had been made yet.

Other factors, including the school’s position as the “heart” and “anchor” of the community, also will influence the School Board’s decision, he said.

Currently, there are two options for Fifth Ward Elementary School, said William L. Lacher, vice president and regional manager of Vanir Construction Management Inc., the company that created the study based on current and future demographics, future enrollment figures, population numbers and parish trends.

The School Board could close the campus and transition its 182 students to Sixth Ward Elementary School with some Sixth Ward Elementary School students eventually moving to Vacherie Elementary School, he said.

The other option is to maintain the existing campus with extensive renovations costing $3.87 million or replace the facility at a cost of $11 million with the realization the school’s enrollment figures are likely to decrease during the next two decades, Lacher said.

Demographics in the study showed that Fifth Ward and Lutcher Elementary schools are projected to have the fewest number of enrolled students by about 2033 because, according to the study, residents will move from the area to escape encroaching industry.

And at $10,641 per student, the annual operational cost of educating a student at Fifth Ward Elementary is also the most expensive in the parish, Lacher said.

The comparable yearly operational cost of educating a student at Paulina Elementary School is $5,621 per student, he said.