Watkins opening delayed for one year

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 18, 2008


Staff Reporter

EDGARD – The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board on Tuesday agreed to postpone until August 2009 the opening of the new Emily C. Watkins Elementary School in LaPlace. The board voted 10-0 with one member absent to accept a special committee’s recommendation to open the school next August, a year later than it was originally slated to open.

With Tuesday’s decision, the parish will revert back to its attendance districts from the 2007-2008 school year instead of adopting a revised zoning plan to include the new school.

The school is still very much a construction site and it became clear several weeks ago that the school would miss its Aug. 7 opening. Construction has been plagued by setbacks this summer, including a digging ban along the levee issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers due to high water in the Mississippi River that prevented Entergy from installing power poles until recently.

Project Manager Blaise Gravois of Aegis Construction, the school’s contractor, said on Wednesday that the poles had finally been installed during a brief period in which the water level dipped below 11 feet, which temporarily lifted the Corps’ ban.

In recent weeks, the board had entertained the possibility of a January opening if the building were ready by then. Some board members have been worried that the school would be vulnerable to defacement if left unused for several months.

“I have a great deal of concern that we will leave that building virtually complete but empty,” Board Member Russ Wise said Tuesday. “That’s just an open invitation for vandalism and to burglary and such.”

Superintendent Courtney Millet said officials had been exploring the costs of hiring an armed guard to place outside the school. Board Member James Madere added that the board was planning to use the school for various purposes such as board meetings, weekend tutoring and public tours upon its completion.

“The school will be in use, but not totally,” Madere said.

 But a clear timetable for the school’s completion remains elusive.

“After visiting the school, it will be a long time until we get to that point,” Millet said.

Millet said she would soon begin negotiating a new timetable with Aegis now that the board has agreed to the one-year extension. In exchange for a negotiable timetable, Aegis has agreed to extend the building’s warranty by one year.

“Extension of the warranty is big,” said Felix Boughton, executive director of business and finance for St. John Parish schools. “I don’t know how you put a value on that.”

The board is also in talks with Aegis about adding various enhancements to the building in lieu of fining the contractor for the continual delays. Gravois said the board had been considering new features such as playground equipment and a canopy but had not yet finalized its request.

Gravois said the delays this summer were “beyond anybody’s control.”