A FEW MINUTES WITH ... Kelli Joseph

POSITION: Superintendent of St. Helena Parish public schools.

AGE: 41.

When Joseph was named superintendent of the St. Helena Parish school district in June 2011, she inherited a system on the brink of bankruptcy and in danger of losing its elementary and high schools to the state-run Recovery School District, which already controlled the parish’s only middle school. Since then, Joseph has cut staff and trimmed expenses to nearly close the deficit, led the district to achieve the most-improved performance score in the state for 2011-12, and regained enough public trust to secure passage of a pair of taxes to increase teacher salaries and begin some needed school renovations and construction.

How are the renovation and construction projects coming along?

Our request for a $4.46 million loan was just approved March 20. This is part of the $8 million bond that was approved by voters in November. As a result, the first phase of our master plan will begin with the construction of our new football stadium, major renovations to the gym and auditorium at the high school and construction of a new building at the elementary school. Renovations at the former technical college building, next to our high school campus, are also under way. The students are really going to love the new, larger cafeteria, and the library/media center will have high ceilings and beautiful windows. It’s going to be a very nice space for the students and will give us another five to six classrooms and a new administration area.

How is the budget looking for next year?

Absolutely wonderful. We will be completely out of our deficit. We’re down to about $150,000 now. Working with my leadership team, we’ve made additional cuts with things like our student information system and upgrading copiers to decrease maintenance costs. We will be having another round of layoffs, not just to save money but to streamline our operations. I need people now who can do multiple things. So we’re looking at all the positions we have and the certifications of all our employees and making decisions based on the needs of our students and how efficient we can get our district. Along with that, we will also have another reorganization of the central office staff, going from five supervisors down to four when our Human Resources supervisor retires in August. Those responsibilities will be shared among the remaining staff.

You have also sought a reorganization of sorts in your schools through the district’s desegregation case. Will you explain that a bit?

What we want out of this case is a decision from the judge to say we have the right as a school board, just like all other school boards, to reconfigure our schools. I want a K-6 elementary and a 7-12 high school. That’s the big thing. We want to do so much with these kids, offer them opportunities, start them earlier and have a continuation of those programs. For example, we’re going to have a Spanish teacher at the elementary and one at the high school. Will they have one at the middle school? I need continuity to be able to answer that. We just want this community to be whole again.

Advocate staff writer

Heidi R. Kinchen