Compromise helps K-8 plan pass

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 10, 2002


RESERVE – The audience burst into applause Thursday as St. John the Baptist Parish School Superintendent Mike Coburn’s K-8 configuration plan took another step toward fruition.

During a public meeting held at the Godchaux Grammar School cafeteria, the school board voted to authorize a special election that would approve the issuance of $5 million in bonds to fund the plan. Coburn announced an amendment to his plan prior to the vote, which exempted West Bank schools from the proposed configuration.

The amendment came as a response to the acrimonious reception the plan received Wednesday during a public forum at West St. John Elementary School in Edgard.

“The students and the parents are my customers,” said Coburn after the school board meeting. “There’s no sense to push, push, push, if it’s something they don’t want.”

There were less than 40 parents of elementary- and high school-age children at the West Bank meeting, but they were unanimous in their opposition to the plan. West St. John Elementary already hosts K-7. Parents were concerned that adding eighth-graders on campus would disrupt and intimidate the younger students, though Coburn’s plan called for housing them in separate buildings.

“I don’t think you can control where the kids are,” said Ronnie Feist, the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) President for West St. John Elementary. Feist spoke for the majority of the attendees when he said they were satisfied with the current configuration of the West Bank schools, and would prefer Coburn to focus on needs they felt were more pressing, such as more full-time teachers. Coburn said he did not see the K-8 plan precluding those needs.

“They want those improvements also. I understand accountability is an issue, and we’ll get that too,” Coburn said.

Several parents were also concerned about the plan violating the U.S. Department of Justice’s 1992 consent decree, which mandated integration of schools in the parish.

“Trust and faith have been lost in the board,” said Arthur Smith, a parent of a WSJE student. Smith discussed how the consent decree was used to keep a class available even though only five students had enrolled in it, after the district had attempted to cancel it due to cost issues. “We have to have something to fall back on, so we can say we get fair treatment and equal treatment.”

Coburn responded by saying the administration’s attorneys had reviewed the plan and given no indication it would violate or cancel the court order. Coburn said he would be accompanying the attorneys to Washington D.C. on April 15 to present the plan to the Justice Department’s Educational Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division. The plan has also been sent to the NAACP for review, said attorney Charles Patin, but will take 60-90 days to receive a response.

“There is no indication there’s a problem. But also none that there is approval,” Patin said during the board meeting.

Parents on the East Bank fervently expressed their support for the plan at their own public forum the previous week, and at Thursday night’s board meeting.

“I don’t care about the politics, I just know what’s good for my children,” said Cindy Hoffman, who has three children in the parish school system. Hoffman flatly stated if the configuration did not pass she would not send her oldest daughter to public school past the sixth grade.

Hoffman asked the board members, “Why would I want to take her out of a school she’s been in since kindergarten?”

School board member Russ Wise, representing Dist. 8, proposed a substitute motion that would enact the first part of Coburn’s plan, thereby reducing the funds laid out for construction, and establish a panel that would seek advice from education experts across Louisiana and the United States to develop a 10-year plan for all grades K-12.

“We need to hasten slowly,” said Wise, who emphasized that he thought Coburn’s plan was an “excellent” one, but not without some logistical problems. “We may find two to three years from now that it hasn’t solved any problems.”

Other board members agreed a long-term plan was needed, but it need not delay the new K-8 configuration.

“I know what materializes out of studies. So much comes back that tells you nothing,” said Dowie Gendron, Dist. 5 Rep.

John Crose, Dist. 11 Rep., has supported the plan from the beginning. Recognizing the board members put their trust in the superintendent and his administration to develop and execute plans like this one.

“We talk about accountability. If (Coburn) fails, it ends his career,” said Crose, who felt the proposal alone was having positive effects. “There has been more dialogue about teaching than we’ve had in the past 15 years.”

Satisfied he did not have the board’s full support, Wise withdrew his substitute motion. But before voting, board members expressed their sentiments the reconfiguration plan was not the answer to all the system’s problems.

“If you have a problem with a bus driver, you don’t buy a new bus and put the same driver in the seat,” said Dist. 6 Rep. Charles Watkins, who said he has seen six different plans for configuration during his tenure on the school board. “We got instant credibility when we hired (Coburn). I hope your plan is correct. I hope it helps the system. But make sure you get the right people.”

Matthew Ory, Dist. 10 Rep., pointed out that officials from the four elementary schools (LaPlace, East St. John, Fifth Ward and John L. Ory Magnet) most affected by the plan were all in favor, and felt the proposal was a foundation the school system could build upon.

“Parents are worried at night about sending their kids to school in the morning. It’s our job to stop that,” said Ory. “We have a great urgency to make a big step to prevent the problems we all know are there.”