Lafayette’s growing pains felt by stressed school system

Monique Veillon sees all the new houses going up in Youngsville and wonders how the Lafayette Parish School System plans to deal with all the new students flooding into the schools.

It was a question the mother of three posed to the School Board at its meeting on Wednesday — one that led to more finger-pointing than answers.

Veillon said the school system simply isn’t keeping pace as new neighborhoods continue to spring up to meet the demand for housing in south Lafayette.

“When May comes, 224 houses will be complete and occupied,” Veillon said of her neighborhood and new ones that surround it. “So, where are these children going to go? My neighborhood is a majority of four-bedroom houses. Do you think single people are going to buy a four-bedroom house?”

She told the board that her son, a Comeaux High freshman, rides an overcrowded bus where riders have to squeeze three to a seat or sit on the floor. His bus stop is also off of La. 89 — a busy main thoroughfare.

Superintendent Pat Cooper told her that the district isn’t prepared for the growth the community is experiencing and that staff has asked the board several times to start the process to bring a tax to voters to meet the needs.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux blamed developers for the problems and said Cooper has publicly said parish voters won’t support a tax.

The back-and-forth finger-pointing didn’t produce any solution, said Veillon, who has three children attending Lafayette Parish schools.

“What is the plan? There is no plan. No one has an answer,” Veillon said. “They just want to talk about how they’re going to discuss it.”

Since the board’s meeting Wednesday, Veillon said she feels the transportation department has tried to address her concerns. But she said there’s still a real need for more routes and more buses in the district.

The district’s working on buying eight more buses and adjusting routes to alleviate overcrowding, but the impact of the changes could take a few weeks, Cooper said Friday.

Additional buses create the need for more drivers, which are not easy to find because of a board policy requiring bus drivers to have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, Cooper said.

He said he’ll ask the board to relax the requirement, especially because the state requires only that the drivers have a commercial driver’s license. The school system has had an ongoing issue of hiring substitute drivers based on the same educational requirements. The system hires its drivers from its substitute driver pool.

“We’ve got a lot of people who want to drive and who have been driving 18-wheelers for 20 years, but we can’t hire them,” Cooper said.

Cooper said more teachers also are needed for schools in the southern part of the parish.

“We’ve had a lot of folks moving into the parish,” Cooper said. “We kind of knew they would, but we thought the charter schools would take some of that load off, but it hasn’t.”

Cooper said his staff met Friday morning and he’ll present a more comprehensive plan to address growth in the southern part of the parish to the School Board at a meeting in September. Part of that plan involves building a new school on board-owned property in Youngsville, he said.

“That’s going to the be ultimate solution, I think,” Cooper said.

At least one pre-K through eighth-grade school and a high school are needed, he said.

Rezoning is another option that could help alleviate overcrowding at both Lafayette High, which has long had more than 2,000 students, and Comeaux High, which this year has nearly 2,000 students, Cooper said.

Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator agreed on the need for a high school and one or two more elementary schools to handle the swelling population of both his city and neighboring Broussard.

“It boils down to the School Board,” Viator said. “I think they’d love to come here and build schools, but they don’t have the money or won’t find the money. They don’t even want to take money out of their rainy day fund to fund their budget.”

Cooper said he’s uncertain if the current board will support any new construction at this time but said the decisions can’t wait until January when those elected Nov. 4 take office.

“We have enough money in the rainy day fund that we could use those dollars and bond out to build an elementary school,” he said.

Last year, Viator pitched the idea of a separate school district for the city as a type of bargaining chip to get the school system to address overcrowded schools. It worked, with new classroom wings planned at Green T. Lindon Elementary and Youngsville Middle schools, but the projects won’t have a major impact on overcrowding, Viator said.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re putting a Band-Aid on it to handle the current population and get rid of portable buildings,” Viator said. “There’s still a problem with us having enough classrooms to handle the children here.”

Cooper has looked to charter schools as an answer to overcrowding of Youngsville-area schools.

The School Board rejected the charters, although Cooper, Viator and Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais all testified in support of authorizing the charters when the schools’ applications went before the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This month, three of the schools opened. One is located in Youngsville and the other two in north Lafayette. The Youngsville charter school — Acadiana Renaissance Charter Academy — enrolls about 228 students who previously attended Ernest Gallet Elementary or Green T. Lindon Elementary, according to information provided by Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, the company that manages the charter school.

Viator said he thinks the new charter school has helped provide some relief and the city has welcomed another school option.

At least two more charter schools are planned in the parish — one K-8 school and one high school — and it’s likely that they’ll be located in south Lafayette.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.