Charter school’s building site in EBR raises concerns

A Florida-based charter school management group’s plans to build a new two-story school along Burbank Avenue near Bluebonnet Boulevard is sparking concern from the School Board representative for the area.

Connie Bernard, who represents District 8 on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said the group should pick a different location that would be more suitable to serving a target population of children from the Gardere area.

Bernard said she voted to approve the application by Charter Schools USA on Aug. 15 after receiving assurances from Jay Augustine, a former School Board member who now works for the group, that it would be targeted at serving students from the Gardere area.

She said Augustine told her further that the school would shoot to have 90 percent of the enrolling students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

But when she learned earlier this month that the school had entered a purchase agreement to buy land not in the heart of Gardere, but off Parkway Drive, a block from Bluebonnet, she said she called Augustine to complain.

“I told him that the only thing that would satisfy me is if they didn’t purchase that land,” Bernard recalled.

Bernard said being so close to Bluebonnet suggests the group is trying to draw students from a much wider area when, “he led us to believe that it would locate in the Gardere area and serve the kids in the Gardere area.”

School Board member Barbara Freiberg, who also represents part of Gardere, said some residents lack cars and a location more in the heart of the neighborhood would give children a better shot of attending the school.

“I am surprised they didn’t look at something on GSRI Avenue,” Freiberg said.

Augustine, who served one term on the board which ended in 2010, referred a phone message from The Advocate to Charters Schools USA spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds.

Reynolds said the new school will serve many students in the Gardere area, but charter school law allows the school to draw students from the rest of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and it will.

Charter Schools USA does not typically provide school bus transportation, Reynolds acknowledged, and instead has parents drive their children to school. Reynolds said she’s not sure if the new school will attempt to provide bus transportation.

The Gardere area, a relatively poor area, and Burbank Avenue has a small shoulder but no sidewalks. The school would be located on the eastern boundary line of the Gardere census tract.

Charter schools are public schools run privately. Baton Rouge has 14 such schools now, but that number is expected to double in next few years.

Charter Schools USA, which operated 48 schools last year in five states, opened its first charter school in Baton Rouge last month, Baton Rouge Charter Academy at Mid City. That school, located at 1900 N. Lobdell Blvd., already has more than 500 students in grades kindergarten to six. It plans to expand to eighth grade and enroll more than 800 students.

The new school slated to locate along Burbank Avenue is to be called The Burbank Charter School and would serve 860 students in grades kindergarten to eight. The charter school group, which already has schools in Lake Charles and Shreveport, has said it plans to open four schools in the Baton Rouge metro area.

It is also seeking to open schools in Lafayette, but the Lafayette School Board on Sept. 18 rejected the groups applications to start two schools there. The group plans to appeal that decision to Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has the authority to green light the school despite the wishes of the local school district.

The Gardere area lacked any schools, public or private, until 2012 when a small Christian school opened in the neighborhood on GSRI Avenue. Almost all of the more than 3,000 school-age children in Gardere, according to the 2010 Census, attend schools north of Highland ridge and 87 percent go to public schools.

Agreeing to place a school in Gardere was key to persuading the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to approve Charter School USA’s application. The board also did not want to take the chance that BESE would approve the group’s application if the board rejected it.

The nearest public elementary schools, Highland, Magnolia Woods and Wildwood, are dominated by children from the Gardere area. The school-age children who live in neighborhoods nearest those schools tend to bypass them, opting instead for private schools or for public, but selective, magnet schools in other parts of the parish.

School leaders have expressed hope that a Gardere public school would free up space in those schools to launch specialized programs aimed at luring back the children of middle class residents along Highland ridge.

The charter school group and the school system, however, have yet to work out a contract.

Taylor in an interview a Sept. 20 interview with The Advocate expressed similar concerns as Bernard. On Tuesday, Taylor said in an email that he’s since reached out to representatives of the group.

“They have clarified everything to my satisfaction,” Taylor said. “They have made no assurances other than the Gardere area is a target area.”

Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies is the named party on the group’s Sept. 11 application to the Planning Commission for a conditional use permit to build on the site. Ryan is in partnership with Charter School USA. The Planning Commission is scheduled to take it up the application when it meets Oct. 21.

The application says the school will set up shop at 9250 Parkway Drive on two lots, totaling 6.3 acres, that are being acquired from landowners Lanny and Garry Lewis. The property is zoned rural but is surrounded by land zoned commercial.

The two story school would have about 69,000 square feet and feature 36 classrooms as well as a soccer field, according to the application.