Questions linger over flood-repair plan at St. John schools

A proposal to scuttle the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board’s plan to split management of hurricane repairs at two schools between two companies was postponed Thursday, but questions persist on whether the board can divvy up the work.

School Board President Clarence Triche, one of the authors of the proposal, canceled a special meeting Thursday morning when the proposal was to be discussed. A date for a new meeting was not set.

After a regular meeting of the board Thursday night, Triche said board member Rodney Nicholas objected to the special meeting because board members weren’t notified of it by mail, in accordance with an obscure board policy.

“We’ve never done it (notified members by mail) before,” or at least, not for many years, Triche said. He said he wasn’t aware of the policy. Nevertheless, he said, he complied with Nicholas’ request to cancel the special meeting.

Triche and board member Lowell Bacas had planned to ask the board to rescind a decision it made earlier this month to split the job of restoration planning and oversight at East St. John High School in Reserve and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace between two companies.

Both schools were badly damaged by Hurricane Isaac in August. Lake Pontchartrain’s students were reassigned to at least four other campuses this school year. East St. John High students are attending classes at the former Leon C. Godchaux High School, which for many years had been used for special programs.

The board has discussed the need for repairs, including the possibility of building a new Lake Pontchartrain Elementary. It is hoping to receive a grant from FEMA that would reimburse the school district for 75 percent of the estimated $65 million cost of school repairs and replacement.

After a committee review of companies seeking the work, the board had voted to hire CSRS of Baton Rouge to manage repairs at both schools, then on Feb. 7 voted to hire both CSRS and HGI, of Lutcher and New Orleans, with each company managing one school’s recovery.

Under the new arrangement, CSRS will manage work at East St. John High and HGI will manage Lake Pontchartrain Elementary.

The board member, Nicholas, urged the board to hire HGI. He said Thursday the company is local, employing some residents of LaPlace, and that he supported hiring a company besides CSRS, which has been the board’s interim consultant on the hurricane repairs as well as its consultant on a $46 million districtwide school improvement program since 2008.

“I don’t think any one company should have a monopoly in St. John Parish,” Nicholas said.

The board’s switch from one to two management companies, however, has raised questions.

“There are problems,” Triche said. “I don’t know all the problems. Some of the problems I can’t tell you about,’’ because of state and federal restrictions, he said. “They’re (FEMA) pretty particular about what they do and how they do it,” he said.

Felix Boughton, the school system’s executive director of finance, said officials are researching whether the new plan to hire both companies complies with federal regulations, but the board needs expert assistance.

“We had $65,000,000 in damages,” he said, and getting FEMA financing is “a lengthy technical process, and you need experts to guide you through it.”

At Nicholas’ request, Boughton reported to the board on the move to have the companies work together.

He said he expects HGI to submit a draft contract for its services within a couple of days and for CSRS to provide documents pertaining to Lake Pontchartrain Elementary as well. He said he likely will meet with FEMA officials about the transition from hiring one to hiring two companies.

Nicholas asked Boughton to make sure he and other board members could attend that meeting.

“They (FEMA officials) want to meet with the district. I represent the district,” he said.

“I can only tell them what you wish,” Boughton said. “It’s going to be their choice, not ours.”

During a break in the meeting while the board held a half-hour executive session, CSRS representative Frank LaCourse III said the board’s decision to split the repairs violates federal and state procurement regulations. CSRS is working on plans to repair the storm-damaged schools under its interim contract with the board.

It also is negotiating with FEMA for a grant for Lake Pontchartrain Elementary, he said. LaCourse said if HGI takes over that project, negotiations will stop, and the project’s completion will be delayed a year.

HGI representatives at the meeting declined to comment.

According to Nicholas, the board’s legal advisers have said the decision to hire HGI was legal.

“The local DA said everything we did is legal. The School Board attorney, far as I know, says everything is legal,” he said.

And, he said the projects will move forward. “I foresee them (the companies) working jointly in cooperation.”

At the meeting Thursday, the board approved by acclamation holding a special election May 4 to seek voter approval of the sale of $10.8 million in bonds to help finance the district’s expected 25 percent share of the cost of the repairs.

Bond attorney Hugh Martin said the bonds would not require new taxes. They would be financed with 10 mills of existing property taxes that are no longer needed to pay off the board’s current bond debt. That debt is shrinking, he said, and the district’s tax revenue is increasing because of expiring industrial tax exemptions.