Lack of recovery progress draws parents to meeting

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 7, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

RESERVE – In response to parents’ frustration over the still-languishing storm-damaged schools, the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board announced that it would get the job done using a special program created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy rather than follow through with the extensive process to appeal FEMA’s decisive underfunding.
The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 is an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act that would allegedly streamline the process of receiving FEMA funding and allow more flexible use of funding. Board members revealed this information after a lengthy closed-door executive session, much to the chagrin of the already-disgruntled parents in attendance. The board voted to utilize the act and apply to the Alternative Procedures Pilot Program at the recommendation of All South Consulting Agency, the firm originally hired to handle the district’s appeal to FEMA.
Paperwork prepared by the consulting agency showed that the tentative cost to rebuild East St. John High School totaled $15,685,362.14, including the construction of a new concession building, field house, vo-tech building, gym, cafeteria and levee. Lake Pontchartrain Elementary came in at $11,072,739. If the application is successful, the school district would be responsible for 25 percent of the total cost of the projects. The paperwork also said that All South plans to visit both school sites to perform review and environmental testing as part of the application procedure.
The board previously announced the appeal process after FEMA’s reimbursement amount fell short of the district’s assessment of the cost of the repairs. For East St. John High School, which will be the first school submitted to the program, the amount offered by FEMA is approximately $12.5 million short of what the district estimates is needed to fix the school. The process would have taken approximately six months. If FEMA denied the appeal, arbitration would have taken another six to 12 months.
At the earliest, board members will know whether FEMA will approve the application by the holiday season, although the deadline to receive and agree to the application is mid-Febuary 2014. That revelation brought groans of displeasure from the small mob of parents.
Cliff Turner had gotten up to address the parents during the executive session, saying that he was fed up with the lack of communication and alleging that the board members didn’t care about the children. Oddly, Turner said he did not initially intend to bash the board.
“Here it is. They’ve been in executive session for an hour. We’ve got kids out here. They have school tomorrow. They could’ve waited until after we left to have their executive session. They don’t care about our kids. Now I see why nothing has been done with our schools. Nothing is ever going to get done with this group of guys that we have,” he said.
Board members listened patiently as Turner lambasted them after they returned from the executive session. In the days before the meeting, Turner distributed a flier in the local community asking parents, students and public officials to attend and vent their frustrations about the status of repairs to the schools. His efforts drew a decent-sized crowd. Turner’s speech did elicit a somewhat defensive response from some board members.
“First of all, I wish you had been here six months ago. I wish that all of you had been here before tonight,” said board member Russ Wise. “What you saw tonight is us moving off the start square. We have tried to do that a couple of times, but what you saw tonight is that we now can move forward.”
School Board President Clarence Triche pinned the blame squarely on FEMA.
“The president of this board has been very quiet about this for some time, in fact almost a year now,” he said. “There’s something you don’t know. We have gone through at least 10 different FEMA contractors, and everytime we call Baton Rouge, we’re still waiting for an answer. We have not gotten one penny from FEMA for all the work we did a almost year ago. FEMA is basically holding us back, and it’s understandable that you cannot spend $15 or $20 million on buildings when you have none,” he said.
Superintendent Kevin George provided a measure of comfort to the concerned citizens and mentioned his experience helping start Rabouin High School after Hurricane Katrina.
“I appreciate the passion that the community has shown here tonight. Yes, I did walk into a buzzsaw about a month ago, but I can tell you this — we will not sleep, we will not rest until we get you back into those buildings. Everything that we do, everything that we do is focused on getting those kids back into those schools. A year is way too long for this to still be sitting around,” said George.
In other news, the School Board put an end to a drawn-out dispute over a contract for grass cutting. Board members agreed to terminate an agreement with Ronald Maxon Lawn Service after implying that he may not have held up his end of the bargain. The termination spurred a quick and fiery response from Maxon, who left immediately after saying his piece.
President of the St. John Association of Educators Iona Holloway also announced that the school district was one of 17 districts in the U.S. to receive a two-year grant from the National Education Association to aid professional learning in Compass and Common Core for certified employees.