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Emergency declaration facilitates Godchaux demolition plans; School Board discusses forming academic committee

LAPLACE — The St. John the Baptist Parish Public School System is in a state of public emergency following the collapse of the Leon Godchaux Grammar School roof early last week. Superintendent Dr. Lynett Hookfin signed an emergency declaration on Thursday, March 25 to acknowledge the imminent public safety and environmental hazard at the site of the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board.

During a special meeting held at Emily C. Watkins Elementary Thursday evening, the St. John Parish School Board passed a resolution to declare a public emergency and allow administrative officials to bypass public bid laws in contracting demolition and disposal work related to the roof collapse.

School Board attorney Orenthal Jasmin explained that there still needs to be transparency and accountability in awarding contracts, even with an emergency declaration to expedite the process.

“Just because we’re making an emergency declaration doesn’t mean you don’t have to go through the normal process of essentially calling around and getting quotes, requests for proposals, whatever process you want to take…It’s still a pretty lengthy process that you have to go through,” Jasmin said. “She (Dr. Hookfin) has to keep documentation of this information, and the Board is obligated to keep this information for six years as a matter of public record. It’s your policy as well as state law to ensure that you’re negotiating and trying to secure best prices associated with this project.”

The Godchaux Grammar School collapsed amid wind and rain in the late evening hours on March 15. The historic property, constructed in 1909, has sat vacant since the 1980s and became visibly dilapidated following years of neglect. The poor condition of the building and a strong possibility of asbestos within its walls made it unfeasible to restore the property years before its eventual collapse.

School Board President Nia Mitchell-Williams thanked Board member Ali Burl III for quickly responding to the situation.

“He has walked the property probably five or six times. He’s reached out to the insurance company,” Mitchell-Williams said. “He ran a L&F (Land and Facilities Committee meeting) and had more information than anybody else. We are not always on the same page, but I do appreciate all of the work that you are doing and have done to expedite this process.”

In other St. John School Board news, Dr. Hookfin requested approval to begin the process of creating an academic committee.

She said the academic committee would function similar to the finance and land & facilities committees, with final decisions coming before the School Board after in-depth discussions in a separate meeting.

“There are so many items to tackle in the arena of academics alone that we need to make this one of our priorities as we are staffing, revamping our overall instructional program and considering virtual learning,” Dr. Hookfin said. “In order for us to be a competitive district, we’re going to need that academic committee to stand alone so we can dedicate the time and energy that needs to be spent on our instructional programming.”

Mitchell-Williams said enhancing academics is one of her priorities as School Board president.

“This committee would force us to spend time looking at programs, looking at test scores, to spend time revamping things at schools. Just like with Land & Facilities, we will be able to discuss things and bring things to the board without it being a two-hour discussion at the board meeting,” Mitchell-Williams said.

She added, “I feel like we’re not spending enough time on academics. We’re just kind of driving by. That’s why parents send their children to us. We’re spending more time on the operational pieces than we should be. It should be a balance, and academics should be equally as important.”

Board member Patrick Sanders said Academic Committee meetings should be held at a time that is accessible to public and parent involvement.

Dr. Hookfin’s request passed with eight yeas. Burl voted against the motion, and Board members Keith Jones and Clarence Triche were absent.