St. Helena, RSD in talks over middle school’s future

Andrea Thompson doesn’t know what will happen to St. Helena Central Middle School, but that’s not stopping her from working at full speed.

Thompson, the school’s first-year principal, approaches the job with zeal. As she walked the school’s halls Friday, she hugged students and told them how proud she was of them.

“I want everybody to remember that these kids belong to St. Helena,” Thompson said of the underperforming school. “They’ve got to be educated.”

After years of conflict, the state and parish seem to want to end their battle over control of the middle school — though no decisions on the school’s future have been set in stone.

St. Helena School Superintendent Kelli Joseph said she plans to shutter the school if the parish regains control of it soon. The middle-schoolers would be added to the parish’s elementary and high schools, which are being extensively renovated and expanded.

But the state-run Recovery School District, which took over St. Helena Central Middle School in May 2010, says it hasn’t decided to give up the school just yet.

The Recovery School District began overseeing the school about a year after the parish School Board agreed to give the state greater oversight of all three of the parish’s failing schools. The agreements with the other two schools eventually expired after they narrowly avoided state takeover.

The parish has been fighting in court the past few years to regain control of the middle school, or at least to be able to add middle-school grades to St. Helena Central Elementary and St. Helena Central High schools. The parish does not currently oversee any kind of middle-school grades.

Joseph said Friday that she is scheduled to meet Monday with Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to discuss a compromise over the middle school.

“We are very optimistic about the possibility of getting the middle school back,” Joseph said.

Dobard, though, downplayed the meeting, saying it’s only a consultation that will put both sides on the same page about the middle school’s future.

“Right now, my focus is solely on continuing the improvements we’ve made at the middle school, and we’re going to continue to work and plan for how we can have the best middle school in the parish,” Dobard said. “Anything that we can do in conjunction with them, we’d be happy to have that discussion.”

If a truce is reached, it would end a years-long battle over control of the parish’s middle-school education.

When the state’s agreements with the parish over the elementary and high school expired, Joseph and the parish decided to begin teaching fifth-grade students at St. Helena Central Elementary School in August 2012.

But U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the parish’s long-running school desegregation lawsuit, halted the move, saying fifth-graders should remain at St. Helena Central Middle School.

The School Board’s attorneys filed a motion in May asking Brady either to give the school back to the board or let the parish add fifth and sixth grades to its elementary school and seventh and eighth grades to its high school.

The School Board argued it needed control of the middle-school grades to maintain a consistent educational model.

Joseph, in an October interview, said she initially wanted to regain the middle school outright. Now, she says it’s more practical simply to reconfigure the other two schools’ grade structures.

“The heart of the school district is gone,” Joseph said. “It’s very difficult to operate under that kind of situation.”

Brady denied the board’s request in August, effectively agreeing with the Recovery School District that the parish doesn’t have a large enough middle-school population to justify having an alternate choice for parents.

The School Board has since decided to appeal Brady’s ruling.

Both sides have disagreed on the direction of the facilities for the middle school.

St. Helena is spending about $14.7 million on new school buildings and renovations, but new facilities for the middle school are not part of the plan.

Dobard said the RSD, which has made several basic improvements at the middle school, is disappointed by the lack of long-term plans for the facility.

“The students that are currently there, their parents are taxpayers as well,” Dobard said. “They deserve to have more resources placed into the facilities.”

Joseph said the parish has no long-term plans for the middle-school facility because they’d rather move the students into the new elementary and high schools once those are built.

“We’re building our facilities to expand our grade levels,” Joseph said.