2 St. James schools on the chopping block

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

By David Vitrano

LUTCHER – Having already eliminated two school facilities in Vacherie Primary and Romeville Elementary schools within the past few years, the St. James Parish School Board has taken steps to close two more, Fifth Ward Elementary and Lutcher Elementary, in the coming years.

Although motions to close each school were passed at last week’s board retreat, at Tuesday’s meeting some board members suggested the path to closing these facilities might not be as easy as simply voting on the matter.

“All this is an assumption,” said Patricia Schexnayder, who represents the portion of St. James Parish where Fifth Ward Elementary is located.

She said any move to close facilities and shuffle students around must first be approved by the Department of Justice because the parish is still under a desegregation order.

Superintendent Alonzo Luce presented board members Tuesday with a proposed redistricted west bank that would send all students from Fifth Ward to Sixth Ward Elementary and also send a portion of Sixth Ward students to Vacherie Elementary.

Although no one on the board seemed to object outright to the possibility of closing these schools, some had a problem with the process that was set in motion.

Board member George Nassar said he believes a retreat is not the place to handle such sensitive matters.

“I just think the public needs to hear,” he said.

Also, when Luce was reviewing the motions concerning the school closures, he said the closing of Fifth Ward would take place “next year,” but because a timeframe was not specifically stated in the motion and many on the board thought the move was too sudden, the timeline on closing Fifth Ward was ultimately left open.

Additionally, it was decided community meetings would be held in advance of any school closing to give residents of the surrounding neighborhoods a chance to have some input and have their questions answered. A series of such meetings were held prior to the closing of Romeville Elementary.

No specific objections were made to the motion concerning the closing of Lutcher Elementary, but the timeline for that action was set at three years, so resistance may grow as the time get nearer. Students in Lutcher Elementary’s attendance zone will likely be split between Paulina Elementary and Gramercy Elementary.

According to Luce, these two schools were targeted as a result of a study conducted by a firm hired to analyze the parish’s public schooling needs. He said the decision was a result of considering both population trends and facilities.

“We’re basically moving schools to where people live,” said Luce.

Both schools also have fewer than 200 students, and according to Luce, a school should have at least 350 students to be cost effective.

After Fifth Ward Elementary and Lutcher Elementary are closed, each side of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish will have two elementary schools and one high school.

Also at the retreat, the board OK’d the creation of the position of associate principal at each of the parish’s two high schools. Luce said the associate principal will oversee seventh and eighth grades at the schools so they can operate more like independent junior high schools. The motion stated the district will promote from within to fill the positions.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, several more updated policies were passed, and the board agreed to advertise for bids for the construction of roads at the future site of St. James High stadium near the intersection of Louisiana Highways 20 and 3127 in Vacherie.

Lastly, the school board elected its officers for 2013.

Charles Nailor, the president for the past few years, was once again the sole nominee to lead the board.

In the election for vice president however, 2012 Vice President Nassar declined the nomination.

“I appreciate the nomination, but there are just a lot of things going on that need my attention elsewhere,” he said.

Kenneth Foret was then nominated and accepted the position.