Flooded St. John schools get some attention

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 23, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

RESERVE – Although things began smoothly during the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board’s regular meeting, the meeting ended with some confusion regarding redistricting procedures.
Board members began the meeting by wishing Superintendent Kevin George a happy birthday with a chorus of the birthday song. George then moved on to more pressing matters by revealing updates on the status of repairs to East St. John High School and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School.
George said that the school district is “well on our way with the temporary campus.” Bids for the purchase of temporary buildings were due Monday, Oct. 21. District officials held a pre-bid meeting for the installation of temporary buildings and site improvement packages on Tuesday, Oct. 22. The district will award the contract during its regular meeting on Thursday, Nov. 7. He went on to announce that the board would hold a special meeting on Thursday at 10 a.m. to recommend the awarding of the temporary building purchase contract.
The superintendent also revealed that representatives from All South Consulting Engineers LLC are finalizing an environmental work plan for East St. John and Lake Pontchartrain’s home campuses and are scheduled to identify hidden damages in both buildings. The firm has completed preliminary walkthroughs and met with district staff to discuss their findings on Tuesday.
George said his staff is also pushin” to have the company submit options and associated costs to the School Board during the Nov. 7 meeting.
After glossing through several other agenda items, discussion came to rest on a new business item requesting board action on the current redistricting plan. Dr. Gerald Keller said he added the agenda item to find out what course of action the board would pursue in regard to a redistricting misunderstanding, saying progress was like “a train going two miles an hour from Texas.”
“And I certainly want to go more than two miles an hour, because I think even though we have until August to qualify, I think we have some concerns,” he said.
Keller went on to say that he was unhappy with his district. Board member Lowell Bacas also said he was unhappy with things as they stood and wanted changes made to his district.
The Secretary of State’s Office allegedly contacted the board to say that it was “unable to implement the (current redistricting) plan as submitted.” Cedric Floyd, a redistricting associate of Data Center LLC, apparently told board members that that there was nothing further for them to do and that they must wait for St. John Parish officials to reconcile the precincts. Floyd also alleged that state approval was not necessary, since the plan already gained clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Kevin Belanger, the chief executive officer of South Central Planning District, the company St. John Parish has hired to complete the redistricting work, said Floyd gave the School Board incorrect advice.
According to Belanger, the law states that Floyd should have received state approval before proceeding with the Department of Justice and that he is not allowed to circumnavigate their approval altogether. Belanger went on to say that the parish officlals cannot move forward until the School Board takes measures to get their plan accepted by the state.
The board awarded a contract for redistricting services to Data Center LLC last year, but the decision was not without debate even then.
At the time, board member Russ Wise mentioned that Floyd had been involved in a lawsuit filed against the School Board the last time redistricting occurred, an incident Wise said cost the district $10,000. He also said the company’s references had not been checked and that Data Center LLC had changed its bid to just below that of South Central Planning just four minutes before the proposal window closed.
To bypass further confusion, George stated that he has contacted secretary of state about the issue to get an attorney general’s opinion about what steps the board needs to take to correct the problem, but the news came a lttle late as board members had already agreed to table the issue and discuss the matter further during a special meeting Thursday morning in Reserve.