No new light shed on school layoffs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 8, 2010

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – Not surprisingly, the cafetorium at Emily C. Watkins Elementary School in LaPlace was packed at the start of Thursday’s St. John the Baptist Parish School Board meeting. All the students who placed in social studies and science fairs at the district, regional and state level as well as the district’s spelling bee winners were set to be officially recognized, so camera-toting parents lined the walls of the room.

What was surprising, however, was the number of people remaining at the conclusion of the meeting nearly four hours later. Those who stayed were mostly teachers and other district employees eager to hear news regarding budget cuts and possible layoffs.

Following an official announcement by Superintendent Courtney Millet that a reduction in force may be necessary and nearly an hour-and-a-half spent behind closed doors, their patience was repaid with the response, “We’re not going to take any action,” uttered by Board President Gerald Keller. “There’s no easy solution to this.”

Keller tried to ease the minds of the employees, saying, “The bulk of jobs are safe.” But he hedged his bets a little by adding, “We can’t say that nothing will happen.”

Board member Matthew Ory also offered his sympathy to those left hanging during the negotiation process.

“We know what it means to feed your families. We know what it means to get a paycheck every week,” he said. “I assure you, we’re doing everything possible.”

Answers will come no sooner than next week, when the next round of negotiations between the administration and the teachers’ union is scheduled to take place, and it is unlikely any agreement will be reached even then.

That somewhat grim piece of news was followed by another as board member James Madere announced he will resign as District 5 representative on May 10, citing personal issues.

In light of that news, Keller called for a special meeting to be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. to try to find a replacement for Madere. According to state policy, local school boards have 10 days to name a replacement in the case of a resignation.

Before breaking for executive session, the board did manage to approve a few items of business.

The board approved an apparent low bid from Samson Equipment to supply weight-lifting equipment for the renovated East St. John High School field house. The equipment will supplement what the school already owns as the new field house will have a much expanded weight training area.

Also approved was a bid from Lanco to supply portable buildings at LaPlace Elementary School during the demolition phase of a renovation project there.

Attorney Lloyd Leblanc also offered an opinion to the board concerning waiving rental fees for certain groups who wish to use school facilities for functions. Although this practice is frequently employed by the school system, Leblanc said,

“It is the opinion of public counsel that waiving fees would violate statute,” he said.

Despite his opinion, board member Russ Wise suggested the board continue to waive fees for certain board-approved organizations “until someone makes us stop.”