St. James School Board members ask for more from parents

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2015

By Stephen Hemelt

LUTCHER — Nearly every seat in the St. James Parish School Board chambers was occupied Feb. 19 as important votes were cast, plotting the future makeup of the parish’s schools.

Discussion had been intense in the days and weeks leading up to the vote as talk of school closures and student redistribution dominated official meetings and impromptu social gatherings.

Ultimately, School Board members approved plans calling for upgrades at Fifth Ward, Sixth Ward, Vacherie, Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina Elementary Schools.

The school district will also reconfigure grade levels, with Lutcher Elementary becoming a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade facility, and Paulina and Gramercy Elementary Schools splitting the sixth graders from Lutcher Elementary.

Also approved was the proposed merger of the Career and Technology Campus and the Science Math Academy at the present Career and Technology Campus to become an early college high school program with an upgraded facility.

The plan first has to be submitted to Washington for Justice Department approval and then voted on by St. James Parish residents May 2 via bond election before taking effect.

During Feb. 19’s closing comments, many School Board members pleaded with community members to stay actively involved in future meetings, acknowledging not all decisions will be as dramatic.

School Board Vice President Dianne Spencer, who represents District 5, said the recent weeks have taken a grueling toll on her, adding there were “sleepless nights.”

Spencer said in the build up to last week’s vote, she was surprised to hear from more grandparents than parents.

“We wonder where are the young people who really have children?” Spencer said. “You need to be there. You need to be there not just when things go wrong in the schools. Hopefully, in the future at the other meetings that we have, we won’t be talking to empty chairs out there.”

It was a sentiment shared by George Nassar Jr., School Board president and District 4 representative, who said the only way to follow School District developments was to regularly attend School Board meetings.

“Y’all need to stay involved, come to the Board meetings,” he said. “Always remember, this Board is transparent.”

District 6 School Board Member Tyler Jasmin, who voted no to the West Bank elementary school approval Feb. 19, said he did so because St. James needs to stand united.

“I feel that we owed it to the kids to try our best to help them and expose them to new things, and I feel by combining together as one, we would be able to help each other learn and grow as one,” Jasmin said.

During Thursday’s meeting, Jasmin said it is obvious St. James residents show up in force when there are problems in the school district, but not with the same fervor when times are good.

“I have been to many events where (there were) no parents,” he said. “So everybody can argue for when things go wrong, but when things go right for the children, they have no support.”

Despite the intense discussion and monumental decisions on the table, District 3 School Board member Sue Beier said all discussion was handled in a civil and respectful tone, which allowed her to vote for the continued operations of many schools.

“I thought clustering the schools was a really good idea,” she said Thursday. “I thought it would put all of our children together, from pre-K through 12th grade, and you avoid a lot of the conflict that is met when they get together at seventh grade.

“I didn’t look at it as closing down Lutcher, closing down Paulina or closing down Gramercy. I looked at it as a new beginning for our parish, a new start. I thought it would be really, really positive.

“In the last five days it has consumed our Board, and we reached this decision together. They let me get to this decision on my own, and I want to thank y’all for that because it means a lot.”

She closed her comments with a plea for continued parental support for students.

“When they get older, they are going to be here running our parish,” she said.