Despite still not yet having court approval on the joint-final agreement for the decades old desegregation case, Tangipahoa Parish school officials have decided to move forward with a plan to improve school facilities.
The school board has agreed to proceed with seven Phase 1 projects to create additions for anticipated student growth and begin removing temporary classrooms. The approximately $27 million for the construction would come from bonding existing revenues, as long as the federal court approves.
Not everyone on the board agreed. Board member Jerry Moore opposed seeking the purchase of the now-vacant former, private school on Yokum Road.
“It was a school purchased to escape segregation,” he said. “That brings a stigma, and I think it’s something that should be addressed and considered.”
Bret Duncan, a non-black board member, said he wondered if the school could be used as a redemption story for desegregation.
“Hammond Eastside is a fully desegregated 50/50 campus that is highly attractive to residents of Hammond,” Duncan said. “To redeem that property in this way, as well as using it to help ultimately bring a close to the desegregation case in the right way, would be an excellent story to be able to tell in the years.”
Buying the Yokum Road school and making improvements would be half the cost on a per-square-foot basis, said Bret Schnadelbach, chief financial officer.
“If the Yokum project does not pass this evening, the remaining items will be tabled to revise the project with some other plan to address high priorities needs in Hammond,” Duncan said.
Without the savings, officials would have to retool the overall recommendations from Phase 1 to address the capacity issues on the east side of Hammond, he added.
Moore also questioned the projects fitting into the proposal that was given to the judge.
“When you look at these large numbers, if you remove reductions, the projects we’re looking at deal with Hammond Eastside, Hammond High, Champ Cooper, PHS,” Schandelbach said. “The projects we’re asking you to consider are these campuses that are growing.”
Administrators said the new facilities would also allow space for M-to-M and magnet transfers at the site, as well as create room for the anticipated increase in student populations at south-end campuses. Some temporary buildings could be removed, furthering the desegregation order requirements.
“That is huge for us, and it’s going to allow us to further our desegregation plan and build these classrooms for these students,” attorney Ashley Bass said.
School board member Randy Bush voiced concern that something in the final agreement must be causing a problem since the judge has not yet signed it, despite having it before him for about a year.
Bass cited additional information the judge requested and the Covid-19 crisis as having delayed the final agreement’s progress.
The Capital Outlay Committee of the Whole, which consists of all nine parish school board members, has agreed to proceed with designing and seeking bids for six other Phase 1 projects, in addition to buying the school facility on Yokum Road. All projects are pending court approval.
Projects include improving the school on Yokum Road, adding onto Champ Cooper Elementary, Ponchatoula High, DC Reeves Elementary and Hammond High, building an athletic fieldhouse at Loranger High, remodeling existing locker and weight rooms at Loranger High for the girls’ athletic programs, adding an emergency exit at Loranger High, and replacing windows and the main entrance door at Kentwood High.
Board members Sandra Bailey-Simmons, Rose Dominguez, Brett Duncan, Tom Tolar, Robin Abrams, Janice Fultz Richards and Glen Westmoreland voted in favor of all seven projects. Board member Jerry Moore voted against the Yokum Road school-related projects and abstained from the Champ Cooper, Ponchatoula High, DC Reeves and Hammond High projects. Board member Randy Bush abstained from voting for all but the Kentwood project, which he supported.
“Upon court approval, we would move forward with the architectural design phase and then go to bid phase,” school system Chief Financial Officer Bret Schnadelbach said.
The projects would come back before the board with construction costs before the district commits to constructing at any of the sites, he said.
He estimates the design phase taking anywhere from 3-6 months, depending on the project, and the bidding process about two months. Construction is an 18-month process.
The board took steps towards achieving funding of phase 2 by creating an educational facilities improvement committee, which gives them the opportunity to proceed with putting a sales tax on a future ballot if they decide to do so.
The board has not decided to solicit a new sales tax or property tax from voters, but administrators say Phase 2 of the facilities projects cannot be done without money from an additional source.
Election rules would require the board members to decide by Jan. 5 about putting a tax proposition on the April 24 ballot.
The education facilities improvement committee will consist of seven members from around the parish: Kentwood Councilman Tre’Von Cooper; Amite City Mayor Walter Daniels; Daryl Ferrara with First Guaranty Bank; Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller; Ponchatoula business owner Jonathan Rucker; Mark Verbois with Enterprise Rental; and Theresa Domiano, former educator and Tangipahoa Parish School Board member.