St. John board looks to pilot program for school repairs

The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board voted Thursday to take advantage of a pilot program that may expedite repairs on two of its storm-battered schools shuttered since Hurricane Isaac struck last year.

The district plans to take advantage of a pilot program implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act.

The program seeks to improve flexibility for communities recovering from disasters and emergencies. Construction has yet to begin at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace and East St. John High School in Reserve almost a year after the storm.

The program discussed at the meeting went into effect for major disasters declared after May 20, but also for recovery projects where construction had yet to start.

Cindy Janecke, a project manager at All South Consulting Engineers, which the board hired last month to handle appeals on federal disaster claims, said the firm was proposing a new option rather than a traditional appeal.

The new pilot program will allow “greater flexibility,” she said, adding, “It will expedite getting back into the schools, and you will be able to do this in a much more timely manner than you would had you gone through the appeals process.”

School officials peg the damage to the two buildings to be about $65 million.

District officials have said much of the federal disaster money received so far has covered work needed in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and that a $37 million gap exists between what the federal government has been willing to pay and the actual cost of repairs.

Under the new program, the “absolute drop-dead deadline” for FEMA to rule on the amount of money the district will receive is Feb. 20, Superintendent Kevin George said.

Some parents expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of repairs. Cliff Turner, whose son is a freshman at East St. John, addressed members after more than an hour-long executive session, saying parents were “really disappointed with you guys,” and said board members were “not on the same page.”