Board denies St. John charter school; Louisiana Premier applying to state
Published 12:15 am Saturday, May 27, 2017
EDGARD — The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board is not getting into the charter school business.
School Board members fell one vote short Thursday night of approving a request from Louisiana Premier Charter School to operate in the parish as a Type 1 charter school.
Members Gerald Keller, Patrick Sanders, Sherry DeFrancesch, Russ Wise and Clarence Triche voted to approve the application.
Members Keith Jones, Shawn Wallace and Ali Burl III voted against, while Charo Holden and Nia Mitchell chose to abstain.
School Board Member Phillip Johnson was not in attendance.
Louisiana Premier Board President Mark Roussel and School Leader Alison Andrews told L’OBSERVATEUR they intend to take the charter school’s application to The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) by early July to seek Type 2 approval.
“We feel real confident that we will be approved by (BESE),” Roussel said. “We were just hoping to work with Superintendent Kevin George. He is a great guy. The administrators of St. John are great. We kind of knew it would happen. It is a political board. I wonder how much focus is on the kids as opposed to their next election, the next time (School Board members) run.”
Roussel said the charter school is still on pace to open in Reserve for the fall of 2018.
According to Louisiana Premier’s application, the charter school would lease a former private school facility at 3556 W. Airline Highway from Lifehouse Church, a site that includes 18.6 acres, three classroom buildings, a separate gymnasium building, a kitchen, cafeteria and numerous other entities.
Prior to the Thursday Public School Board meeting vote, which took place at West St. John High School, independent evaluator Kimberly Williams and George recommended School Board members approve the application.
In a perfect world, George said the public school district would “be all things for all people.”
“However, we’re not doing that currently because we do have a lot of people who are deciding to spend money to send their children to school,” George said. “In my professional opinion, (the charter school application) will be approved at BESE. This Board now has to decide, do we want to work with the school or do we want another school in our parish working in our parish without any of our input?”
George advocated for Type 1 approval.
“We would have input,” George said. “We would work with them. They would be part of this school system. We are at the table with them as they are growing their school and working with their school. We would help and assist one another to get to the end goal, which is to educate children.”
George said denying the application locally and seeing it approved in Baton Rouge as a Type 2 Charter School takes all input from the St. John School Board off the table.
Burl said ever since he has been on the School Board, the elected leaders have run the parish schools with the lowest millage in the River Parishes.
“Every time we look, we’re trying to manage our money to make sure that we’re giving the residents of St. John Parish the best thing for their buck,” Burl said. “We lower our millages when we can. We’re the highest employer of local employees in the parish. Our employees that work in St. John Parish live here, pay taxes here, pay homestead exemption and turn around and spend money. For the business community to say we’re not trying to work with this community, it’s wrong and it’s flawed.”
Burl said he is against Type 1 approval because it could stunt the many positives made by public schools, including the District’s recently earned B status.
Jones said the school district only has two low performing schools and the superintendent and administration has a plan to improve those schools and those students’ performances.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Jones said.
Wallace echoed the comments, advocating for Type 1 denial, adding the public school district could fight its own battles on the way to becoming an A district and did not need to assist a charter school effort in the parish.
Wise said he voted for the measure because “it is almost certain to pass in Baton Rouge” if it didn’t pass in St. John.
“If it is approved as a Type 2 charter school, all of the money that is collected from the state for each of these students, both from the state MFP and the local sources, would go to a school we would have absolutely no control over,” Wise said. “This is a choice of losing either completely the control of a school that I think will benefit us and having it all run from Baton Rouge or having local input and local control and keeping the money locally.”
Sanders said the elephant in the room was the racial divide in St. John Public Schools, which he listed as 85 percent black, 12 to 14 percent white and 1 percent other.
In advocating for Type 1 approval, Sanders said it would provide the School Board some control over the dynamics of the charter school and ensure segregation is not part of the future of any open admissions school.
Williams, the third party evaluator who recommended Type 1 approval, said a judge would have final say over the charter school’s racial makeup benchmarks, and Roussel stressed a charter school is an opportunity to create another community school.
“What we’re basically asking for is the parents of St. John to have another choice,” Roussel said. “It gives the parents another opportunity. I’m not a part of (keeping kids separate). This school is going to be equal opportunity for all the children of St. John Parish.”