EBR board likes Lee High plan

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board deadlocked Thursday on whether to rehire CSRS/Garrard Program Management to manage school construction through the end of 2018.

The School Board, meeting as a “committee of the whole,” split 5-5. The 11-member board plans to take up the issue again at its regular meeting Feb. 21.

School Board member Barbara Freiberg was the lone abstention. She said she wants to see more information about alternatives, including the idea of having multiple program managers.

On Thursday, the board also recommended unanimously to spend about $8.1 million to use Valley Park Alternative School as the temporary home for Lee High School while that school is rebuilt. Part of that money, about $3.7 million, would go to move displaced Valley Park students to vacant space at Town South Shopping Center at 1919 Staring Lane. The school system used to lease space in the shopping center for alternative school.

In November, the board agreed to rebuild the old rundown Lee High campus at 1105 Lee Drive, requiring a two-year relocation until construction finishes in summer 2015 at an estimated cost of $58.5 million. The old school is set to be demolished this summer.

CSRS/Garrard Program is managing the Lee High rebuilding as it has almost all school system construction since 1999. The joint partnership was hired soon after voters in 1998 first approved a 1-cent sales tax, of which 40 percent is earmarked for school construction. Its current five-year contract expires at the end of 2013 if not renewed.

The school system had a committee evaluate the firm’s work in December and the review was generally favorable.

Voting in favor of renewing CSRS’s program manager contract were Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Craig Freeman, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

Voting against renewal were Jerry Arbour, Randy Lamana, Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Tarvald Smith.

Arbour urged against the renewal of CSRS’s contract, saying he likes to see what the best prices available are for all contracts. Instead, Arbour urged the board to approved a request for proposals. He also said the district might also look at hiring multiple program managers or bringing the program in-house.

Tatman, the board president, said he, too, likes to seek proposals when contracts come up for renewal, but in this case CSRS has done good work and looking for other firms would be counterproductive.

“There is a certain synergy in large projects like this that I would hate to see disrupted with an RFP process,” Tatman said.

Smith, the board’s vice president, said CSRS has done “tremendous work” but he wants to see what other firms would charge.

“If there is an inkling of an opportunity for the taxpayer to get more of a bang for their buck, I want to pursue it,” Smith said. “I’m torn because I’ve seen the work and it’s good, but whom is my obligation to?”

Lee was the most critical of CSRS’s work, saying that the company hasn’t done enough work in her district and that it’s being paid too much.

“They’re overcharging us, and you don’t care, but I do,” Lee said.

Bernard gave the floor to CSRS representative Earl Kern to answer the criticism. Kern noted that his firm has on several occasions done work for free, “too many times to mention.”

Kern also noted that the School Board and the voters decide where to do construction, not CSRS.

In other action, the School Board had the first of many debates about how best to cut costs in the face of a significant increase in the cost of providing employee medical insurance.

Catherine Fletcher, chief business operations officer, said early estimates are that the school system’s costs will increase from $78.9 million to $85.3 million a year. She said about $3 million of the increase stems from complying with the 2010 federal Affordable Care and Prevention Act, particularly a provision calling for covering employees who work 30 to 40 hours a week.

Board members said they want to see more details before they give Superintendent Bernard Taylor more guidance about the issue, which they plan to revisit Feb. 21.