New Watkins School may not open until next term

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2008


Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – The new Emily C. Watkins Elementary School in LaPlace may have to take a tardy slip for its opening this fall.

But with Mother Nature mostly to blame, it’s likely to be an excused absence.

High water levels in the Mississippi River have prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to disallow digging within 1,500 feet of the levee, which has in turn prevented Entergy from installing the power poles the school needs to receive electricity.

St. John the Baptist Parish School Board officials this week began drafting a contingency plan in case the school misses its Aug. 7 opening. School Board President Gerald Keller would not rule out a punctual opening but said “it doesn’t look good.”

“Until they can get power, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and the Mississippi River,” he said.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the school board would opt for a mid-year opening in the event of a delay or wait for the following school year. Superintendent Courtney Millet on Thursday said the board would make that decision at a later date after discussing possible timetables with the contractor, Aegis Construction Inc.  

But Keller said he would be uneasy confusing the younger children with an abrupt change of scenery and routine after the year starts.

 “It’s pretty traumatic for little kids to move when they settle into a new environment,” he said. “It’s possible it won’t open for an entire year.”

Bob Hufft, a hydraulic engineer with the Corps, said the digging ban would not be lifted until the water level sinks below 11 feet. But the river is expected to rise even higher in the coming weeks due to heavy rains in the Midwest, he said.

On Wednesday, the water level was up to 11.2 feet in New Orleans and 15.5 feet in Reserve. The average in New Orleans for this time of year is about 8.8 feet.

The Aegis project manager, Blaise Gravois, this week declined to comment on the timetable for the school’s completion.

As any delays would also save some operating costs, Millet, in a written statement to the board, suggested making lemonade out of lemons.

In addition to negotiating an extended completion date, she referred to “possibly work[ing] towards building enhancements provided by the contractor.”

In an interview Thursday, Millet declined to say whether any delays in the construction had occurred that were unrelated to the high water. But in her statement, she advised the board against fining the contractor for any delays, saying “these funds would not benefit the education experience of the students.”

She also reminded the school board that its obligation to the community called for ensuring a “seamless transition” for the students attending the new school. To that end, the board at a meeting Tuesday unanimously approved a “New School Opening Committee” to meet twice a month.