Breakaway threat checked

Iberville Parish’s east bank residents and St. Gabriel city leaders have been “premature” in announcing their intent to split from the Iberville Parish School District to form their own municipal school system, state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, said Friday.

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson and Police Chief Kevin Ambeau said Thursday they were leading a drive to pull out of the parish’s school system because the community had reached its breaking point after years of seeing its needs being overlooked by administrators paying more attention to the students attending schools on the west side of the parish.

The Iberville Parish School District operates nine schools. East Iberville Elementary and High School and the Math, Science and Arts Academy-East Campus are the only two public schools located on the parish’s east bank.

Because the St. Gabriel area contributes more than $20 million annually toward the school district’s $90 million yearly operating budget, Johnson and Ambeau said Thursday, the community is convinced it has the financial means to run its own school system and give its students the resources and opportunities they now lack under the umbrella of the parish school district.

“I don’t think this should be the course of action,” Brown said Friday. “I don’t think it will accomplish what they want. They are moving like a speeding bullet without us having anything in place.”

Brown said he and state Rep. Edward Price, D-Gonzales, have had only one meeting so far with community and St. Gabriel leaders about the idea of forming an independent school district for Iberville’s east bank, including the city of St. Gabriel.

Brown said he and Price were asked if they would set the stage for the breakaway drive by pre-filing a bill for consideration by the 2013 Louisiana Legislature, which convenes Monday, April 8.

“I told them if we need to go that route, it’s not a problem,” Brown said. “But I’m not definite we’ll able to move forward with a piece of legislation of this magnitude because there are a lot of preliminary procedures that need to be done. St. Gabriel came to us this week, only a month before us going into (legislative) session.”

Breakaway school districts are created through passage of a state constitutional amendment that must first win two-thirds majority votes in both the state House and Senate.

Next, the constitutional amendment proposition must be placed on a statewide election ballot and win majority support both statewide and in this case, Iberville Parish.

According to the state Legislature’s website, proposed constitutional amendments must be requested by noon on March 26 in the Senate or March 27 in the House, and Senate bills must be prefiled by noon Thursday, March 28, or Friday, March 29, in the House.

“We don’t even have the details of what needs to go in the bill right now,” Brown said Friday. “They jumped the gun on this.”

Brown said he suggested the community and city leaders get their local representatives involved, but in an effort to bring both sides together to reach a more amicable resolution.

“They’ve been treated at a substandard level for many years, but I don’t think we need to go the legislative route to get what they want accomplished,” Brown said. “For them to pull out of the school system as a whole, it’s going to be detrimental to the other areas of the parish.”

School Superintendent Ed Cancienne said Friday he agrees with Brown.

Cancienne also said he spoke with other members of the Iberville legislative delegation who expressed sentiments similar to those of Brown.

“I know it can be resolved,” Cancienne said.

Johnson said he appreciates Brown’s position in suggesting both sides need to get together, but added the community is well aware of the fight ahead in order to achieve their goal of founding their own independent school district.

“We are prepared for it and would not have started this process if we felt we couldn’t succeed,” Johnson said in a text message Friday. “We need Superintendent Cancienne and the School Board to know that we are serious. We have no problem with talking, but action must come along with it.

“Our parents are frustrated from the quick fixes and broken promises and many have expressed the desire to push for a new school district regardless of negotiations. The superintendent and the School Board have an opportunity now to respond to the concerns they are already aware of.”

Nancy Broussard and Melvin Lodge represent the St. Gabriel and east bank areas on the Iberville Parish’s 15-member School Board.

Lodge did not return calls to his cellphone on Friday.

But Broussard said the community’s grievances against the school system are “long-standing” and “legitimate.”

“I’ve had constituents to speak to me about it. Some of it goes all the way back to some parents of current students who were students on the east bank themselves,” Broussard said. “There have been some promises kept and some not kept. I have worked constantly to try and resolve these issues, but parents have become more and more frustrated because the administration, at times, has not responded in a timely manner.”

Broussard said some of those grievances involve overcrowded physical education classes, teachers having to share classrooms and the “underdesigned” arts academy on the east side.

“It’s designed as a math, science and arts academy with no dance studio,” she said. “I had to fight to get one of the rooms converted into a dance space, but theater classes have to be held in the lunchroom, and it has floating choir classes.

“They (the school district) are in the process of building a theater at MSA-West that’s costing more than our entire school, so yes, these are legitimate grievances that students on this side of the river are being shortchanged,” Broussard said.

“I’m still in the position of wanting to work it out with the administration and my fellow board members,” Broussard said. “I just hope we can all come together and resolve it.”