Officials want east Iberville to split from parish school system

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --  City officials in St. Gabriel said Thursday they intend to break away from the Iberville Parish School District to form their own municipal school system. Mayor Lionel Johnson said the community feels as if its two schools are constantly overlooked by a school district funneling most of its money into the campuses on the west side of the parish. The Math, Science and Arts Academy-East Campus on Nicholson Drive would be included in the new school district, officials say.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- City officials in St. Gabriel said Thursday they intend to break away from the Iberville Parish School District to form their own municipal school system. Mayor Lionel Johnson said the community feels as if its two schools are constantly overlooked by a school district funneling most of its money into the campuses on the west side of the parish. The Math, Science and Arts Academy-East Campus on Nicholson Drive would be included in the new school district, officials say.

Iberville Parish east bank residents and St. Gabriel city leaders are joining in a renewed effort to break away from the Iberville Parish School District and form their own municipal school system, city officials said Thursday.

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson and Police Chief Kevin Ambeau said the community wants to opt out of the parish’s school system because of “years of frustration” of feeling like the school system’s “stepchild.”

“This is a movement that is solely about the enhancement of the quality of education and life for the students and citizens on the East Side,” Johnson said in an email Thursday. “In the Mayor’s Office, we receive constant complaints about inequalities in service, lack of support, and lack of concern in general from the school district as it relates to the schools in St. Gabriel.

“This decision stems from the accumulation of years of frustration. Attempts at solutions have been met with broken promises or ‘quick fixes’ void of any permanent solutions to the ongoing issues of the East Side. There is, and has been, a blatant disregard on behalf of the school district for how these ongoing issues affect our community as a whole,” Johnson said.

The Iberville Parish School District is composed of nine schools, seven of them on the more populous west bank of the Mississippi River.

East Iberville Elementary and High School and the Math, Science and Arts Academy-East campus are the only two schools located on Iberville’s less-populated east bank.

Approximately 600 students attend the high school and the academy, which combined employ more than 60 faculty and staff members, Ambeau said.

For the past five years, Ambeau said, the two schools have received D ratings from the state Department of Education and only 56 percent or fewer of their students have been performing at or above their grade levels.

“The literacy rates in our schools are amongst the lowest rates in our district,” Ambeau said in a prepared statement Thursday. “Many of the residents feel that our students are leaving the public school system to attend private schools in surrounding communities.

“If our community feels that, given the opportunity to have an independent school system, we can provide an educational system comparable with our neighboring public school systems, then we owe it to our children to enable this school system to become a reality,” Ambeau said.

Johnson and Ambeau both said the St. Gabriel area contributes about $20 million a year to the school district’s operating budget through local tax dollars and state-appropriated funds.

“That’s way more than enough money to run a school district ourselves,” Ambeau said. “But our schools still don’t receive the resources required to provide our students with a Grade-A, quality education.”

Ambeau said St. Gabriel and east bank residents are displeased the district is spending more than $20 million to upgrade the Math, Science and Arts Academy-West Campus while their requests to have a cafeteria built at MSA-East seem to have been ignored by the school district.

For instance, breakfast and lunch for MSA-East Campus students are prepared daily in the kitchens of East Iberville Elementary School and shipped to MSA-East, he noted.

Johnson said this isn’t the first time talk of creating a St. Gabriel-area school system has surfaced.

Back in 2010, then-Mayor George Grace threatened to pull St. Gabriel out of the school district when he thought plans to build the MSA-East Campus had stalled.

But Johnson said people in the St. Gabriel/Iberville east bank communities aren’t bluffing this time and intend to aggressively pursue creating their own school system.

“Now we have a pretty building with no resources,” Johnson said. “This is a strong, inclusive movement, transcending race, educational attainment and socioeconomic status. I feel confident in saying the movement will not stop until the east side starts receiving its fair share of services or when we become an independent school district, where we can do it ourselves.”

Johnson said city leaders intend to formally announce their intentions to the Iberville Parish School Board during its March 11 regular meeting.

Anna Gatlin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said in an email Thursday that breakaway districts require a state constitutional amendment granting the city the same authority bestowed on parishes to receive state Minimum Foundation Program funding and tax revenue to fund local schools.

Gatlin wrote that municipalities wanting to form independent school districts must first present their proposal to the state Legislature, where it must win two-thirds majority votes in both the House and Senate.

Next, the proposed constitutional amendment must be placed on a statewide election ballot and win majority support both statewide and in Iberville Parish, Gatlin said.

Ambeau said city leaders already had discussed the issue with state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, and that Brown agreed to pre-file the proposed constitutional amendment paving the way for Iberville’s breakaway district in time for the 2013 legislative session, which convenes Monday, April 8.

Brown did not return calls to his office Thursday afternoon.

School Superintendent Ed Cancienne said he felt the Iberville School District always has maintained an open dialogue with east side residents and has taken their complaints seriously.

“The mayor told me he wanted to continue to work through this,” Cancienne said in his office Thursday. “Everyone is entitled to their position and whatever cause they want to pursue. But over the last few years, I’ve made efforts and provided an educational program meeting the needs of the students.”

Cancienne cited the state’s Department of Education report for East Iberville Elementary and High School which shows an annual growth of 2 percent.

“It has made progress,” he said. “This is not about education of the children, this is about something else.”

Cancienne said more money is being spent on construction at the MSA-West campus because the school’s student enrollment is quadruple that of MSA-East’s.

Approximately 1,300 students are currently enrolled at MSA-West, according to school district officials.

Chief Financial Officer Jolain Landry, of the Iberville School System, said Thursday she didn’t know how the east bank’s departure from the school district would affect its more than $90 million annual operating budget.

Landry said she will need information she has requested from the Tax Assessor’s Office and the state’s Department of Revenue to better gauge the situation.