After an at times racially charged debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted 9-1 Thursday to create a new attendance zone for Lee High School that is similar to but smaller than the zone the school had when it closed in May 2009.
The board also agreed with the recommendation of new Superintendent Bernard Taylor to keep Lee High School just for grades nine and 10 at first, allowing juniors and seniors to stay at McKinley, Tara and Woodlawn high schools. Those are the three schools that took in Lee High students in 2009 when the low-performing high school was closed to avoid a potential state takeover. McKinley and Woodlawn, in particular, have suffered overcrowding since.
Taylor defended the “start small” approach — the new school will have an estimated 263 ninth-and 10th-graders.
“It allows us to build a quality program,” he said. “You can bring the kids in there and scaffold up.”
Robert E. Lee High School is scheduled to reopen Aug. 8 at the start of the 2012-13 school year. Taylor said the first year will be a planning year. He said by 2013-14, he would like to open an additional program, perhaps a magnet program, that would attract new students to the school system.
The board members voting in favor of the new attendance zone are: Jerry Arbour, Connie Bernard, Craig Freeman, Randy Lamana, Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, Tarvald Smith, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.
Board President Barbara Freiberg, who represents most of the Lee High area, abstained.
Jill Dyason, who represents the area that includes Woodlawn High, was the lone vote against the new zone. She pushed hard to persuade the board to expand the new Lee attendance zone to include an area east of Siegen Lane that feeds into Woodlawn High.
“We either are going to embrace neighborhood schools or not,” Dyason said.
Dyason also noted that the recent attempt to create a new southeast Baton Rouge school in the Woodlawn area called for a high school bounded on the south by I-10.
Board members Lee and Nelson-Smith, both black, questioned why Dyason, who is white, is pushing to have even more Woodlawn students attend Lee High School.
“What people are not saying about this, it is a racial issue,” Nelson-Smith said. “It is, and it’s not being addressed.
“We have to make decisions based not on what’s good for one neighborhood, but what’s good for one district,” she added.
Lee addressed Dyason directly at one point.
“These schools belong to all of our children. We can go to this school as well as her children,” Lee said referring to Dyason.
Dyason did not respond to Lee directly.
But after the meeting, Dyason said that Woodlawn High School is not unfriendly to black students. She said the high school has a five-member Student Council and the student body elected four black students to the council.
“You can’t say this is racial,” she said of her effort to expand the attendance zone.
Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson objected to Dyason’s proposal.
She noted that most of the students in the area that Dyason wants to transfer from Woodlawn High to the new Lee High actually live closer to Woodlawn.
“I know that if I was living right there I would much rather go that short distance to Woodlawn than to go all the way to Lee,” Ware-Jackson said.
Dyason was also upset that Lee High won’t include middle school grades to relieve overcrowding at Woodlawn Middle School.
Taylor presented a choice of five attendance zones. The board selected Option 4.
The five maps are included in a presentation at the website: http://sbcentral.ebrschools.org/eduWEB1/1000144/docs/06.21.12item30.pdf
The board did not rename the school, but referred that matter to a school naming committee that Taylor is planning to form per board policy.
At a June 14 community forum, about 150 came up with several ideas for the new school, including several possible new names for the high school, originally named after the famous Civil War general. Some alumni, black and white, have made clear they don’t want the school name to change.
“I’ve been threatened mayhem if you try to change the name of Lee High School,” board member Jerry Arbour said. “So I think you can disabuse yourself of the notion that we’re going to rename Lee High.”