School Board considers ideas to divert construction funds to projects challenging charter schools, St. George effort

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board may ditch plans to demolish and rebuild two elementary schools and instead redirect that $41 million to new programs to better compete with charter schools or to build a new high school south of I-10 to head off interest in creating a city of St. George.

The School Board discussed the matter Thursday but took no votes.

A 1-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1998 and renewed in 2008 includes many school construction projects, such as the completed rebuilding and expansion of Baton Rouge Magnet High and the ongoing rebuilding of Lee High. The next two projects in the tax plan to be designed are the demolishing and rebuilding of Broadmoor and Park elementary schools.

Changing major projects listed by name in the tax plan requires not just the approval of the board but also approval from a special citizen’s committee.

Superintendent Bernard Taylor said there are exciting ways to shore up and improve schools that are facing the most competition from new charter schools. He said, as he has repeatedly, that the new charters — public schools run via contracts with private groups — aren’t doing anything new that the school system isn’t doing already and are vulnerable to creative competition.

“Where there is a charter present, we need to use this process to attack that,” Taylor said, “because you can bring significant numbers of children back to the district.”

Board members Connie Bernard and Jill Dyason, however, pressed the idea of using money saved by not rebuilding Broadmoor and Park elementary schools to instead build a new school in the unincorporated area of the parish south of Interstate 10. The area lacks public schools, except for a new charter school that opened a month ago on Burbank Drive.

The Committee for Incorporation of St. George has proposed building six new schools in the area, in addition to the 11 schools it hopes to take over north of I-10. To do so, the organizers would not only have to successfully incorporate the area but also subsequently persuade the Legislature to let the new city take control of public schooling for the area.

Bernard said roughly 90 percent of the residents of her district opt out of the school system for private or parochial schools. As she has been knocking on doors in her quest for a second term on the School Board in Nov. 4 election, she said, she’s been running into many St. George supporters.

“The reality is they are telling me they are signing the petition and they going to vote for the city of St. George, and that’s because they have no schools,” she said. “Mayfair is not the solution. It’s only an elementary school.”

Mayfair Lab School is a small elementary school that eventually will grow to eighth grade. It is a magnet school modeled after better known LSU Lab School. Opened 13 months ago, Mayfair Lab posted strong test scores in its first year.

Dyason said the school system needs to offer more options in the upper grades south of I-10. She suggests starting a school with students in grades six to 12, an idea she floated in 2012 when the School Board was debating how best to rebuild Lee High.

She also rejected the idea of another magnet school.

“I want a school you don’t need an application to get into,” Dyason said.

Board member Barbara Freiberg voiced similar thoughts.

“I’d hate to overbuild in an area where we have schools and not build in areas where we don’t have schools,” Freiberg said.

Board member Tarvald Smith said he’s sympathetic but recalled that the board had considered relocating Lee High but found that available land was scarce or, if available, would require expensive wetlands mitigation.

School Board member Jerry Arbour noted that CSRS/Garrard Program Management, a joint partnership that manages school construction for the school system, is in the process of looking at the capacity of school buildings, something it agreed to as part of its spring 2013 contract renewal.

Taylor noted that several schools in the southeast area that were full in the past now have some space thanks to attendance zone changes and new schools, like the new Brookstown Middle Magnet Academy. He also said there are other schools with space, but they are in areas of town that have proven difficult to attract students to.

“Let’s be clear. Where there is capacity, people don’t wanna go there,” Taylor said.