School consolidation discussed as a cost-saving measure

Published 12:15 am Wednesday, May 3, 2023

RESERVE — School site consolidation was once again a topic of discussion as the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board brainstormed cost-saving measures to address an anticipated $4.7 million loss in MFP revenue for the 23-24 school year.

No decisions have been made, and no action is being taken at this time. The discussion took place Thursday evening during a School Board workshop inside the Leon Godchaux Grammar cafeteria in Reserve.

The School Board and Superintendent Rebecca Johnson have also discussed not filling 31 positions for the upcoming school year, which would result in a cost savings of approximately $2.1 million.

“Not filling 31 positions would only account for about half of the $4.7 million. I think we need to seriously talk about consolidating buildings,” School Board member Debbie Schum said. “If you look at our school population, the two sites that have the lowest numbers are Garyville and Fifth Ward.”

During the April 20 School Board meeting, board members authorized South Central Planning to provide revised enrollment boundaries using all current schools and a second option that does not use Fifth Ward Elementary, but instead uses East St. John Prep as a K-8 school.

Fifth Ward Elementary has gained national attention due to its proximity to chloroprene emissions from Denka Performance Elastomer. In October 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights issued a 56-page letter that included a recommendation for Fifth Ward Elementary students to be moved to a location where recorded concentrations of chloroprene are less than 0.2 µg/m3.

South Central Planning is expected to present the enrollment boundary options to the School Board within three to six months.

However, Board member Raydell Morris and Superintendent Johnson said decisions on school building consolidation should be made before the end of the current school year due to the potential impacts on staffing for the 2023-24 academic year.

While Schum emphasized that layoffs were not on the table and that most positions would transfer between school sites, there would not be a need for two principals or two head janitors in the event of a consolidation.

School Board member Patricia Triche said it will be important to look at the enrollment numbers for each site. She pointed out that the eastern end of the district has grown tremendously compared to the western end, and the School Board must ensure boundaries are equitable.

Johnson was in favor of looking further into consolidation since K-8 schools have historically demonstrated faster growth in school performance.

Schum also brought up the possibility of consolidating West St. John Elementary and West St. John High School into a single campus, although she doesn’t think the district would be ready to make that move before the next school year.

West St. John Elementary has a student population of approximately 200, while West St. John High School has approximately 170 students. When the idea of consolidating the West Bank sites was brought up on a School Board agenda in 2021, members of the community were vocal in their opposition.

School Board member Charo Holden, who represents families on the West Bank, doesn’t want to see resources limited for West St. John students simply because the enrollment numbers are lower.

“We have to explore all options,” she said. “It needs to be something that’s beneficial for the whole district.”

Board members pointed out that the bond issues approved by St. John the Baptist Parish voters in April 2022 includes capital improvement projects at both the West St. John Elementary and West St. John High School sites.

“We don’t want bond projects to be going on at sites where students won’t be held,” Board member Jennifer Frizzell said.