Plans for new gym and auditorium at Iberville’s MSA-East don’t quell talk of breakaway district

Photo provided by Bani, Carville, & Brown AIA Architects Inc. -- This digital rendering of the proposed gymnasium and auditorium addition to MSA-East in St. Gabriel. Show caption
Photo provided by Bani, Carville, & Brown AIA Architects Inc. -- This digital rendering of the proposed gymnasium and auditorium addition to MSA-East in St. Gabriel.

Although the Iberville Parish School System’s plan to build a $6.7 million gymnasium and performing arts auditorium at the Math, Science and Arts Academy-East Campus is a welcome addition to a community that many feel has been ignored by school district officials, St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson says it will take more than pretty buildings to quell talk in the city of forming its own breakaway school district.

“We’re basically in a holding pattern,” Johnson said Wednesday — more than a week after the Iberville Parish School Board gave the school system’s administration the OK to borrow up to $6 million to fund a slew of new construction projects in the parish — several of which are happening on the campuses of the two schools located on the parish’s east bank.

“The capital outlay improvements are wonderful. I’m just disappointed we had to threaten to pull away to get these things,” Johnson said. “The true test to whether we will continue to seek independence will depend on student achievement for our kids. Pretty buildings are fine, but they don’t educate kids.”

Johnson also feels the high school graduates in his area need an alternative to the curriculum and programs preparing students for college.

“We need something over here for the kids not going to college,” Johnson said. “The things they are doing at MSA-East are great, but we still have kids at East Iberville (Elementary and High School). What’s happening to them?”

St. Gabriel officials voiced their desire last year to create a new municipal school district.

Johnson and others felt the need to break away from the parish school district because they believed Superintendent Ed Cancienne was more focused on student achievement and infrastructure improvements for the seven schools on the parish’s west bank instead of the two — East Iberville Elementary and High School and MSA-East — in the St. Gabriel area.

But the parish’s legislative delegation, who would need to file bills initiating the arduous process to establish a new school district, threw a wrench in their plans by asking St. Gabriel officials to give the superintendent at least a year to address their concerns.

Among the slate of new construction projects in east Iberville are the renovation of the athletic facilities at East Iberville Elementary and High School and replacing the school’s service road.

However, the most notable addition will be the $6.7 million gymnasium and performing arts center for MSA-East.

The 8,205-square-foot gymnasium will include enough retractable bleachers to seat about 400 people.

The new auditorium, designed to be 2,400 square feet, will feature 250 fixed seats located on a mono-slope floor with an elevated stage. A high-tech “black box” classroom and a 1,000-square-foot dance studio are also part of the planned construction at MSA-East.

Iberville’s Project Manager Patrick Norris said construction on the new facilities should begin late fall if the school district can secure a contractor by September.

Construction is expected to take about 18 months, he said.

Cancienne’s request to borrow money for the MSA-East improvements did come with some criticism from School Board members who felt his interest in East Iberville was just a move to pacify St. Gabriel officials.

Board member Dorothy Sansoni on June 16 voted against borrowing the money for the projects because she felt the school district was investing too much money on the east side, where student enrollment numbers are lower than on the west side.

The superintendent defended his focus on east Iberville by saying he’s honoring the commitment the school district made when it asked voters to pass a 2008 sales tax supplementing the costs of the improvements.

“The East Academy needs the gym and auditorium to meet the curriculum of a good math, science and arts academy,” Cancienne said.

He said the east Iberville projects are just the start of his long-range plan to improve infrastructure and curricula at schools throughout the parish.

“We have to look at all our schools and do a thorough needs assessment,” he said. “That’s going to be the new direction.”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.