School Board authorizes Eastside land purchase for academy program

Deidre Cruse

The School Board on Monday authorized the superintendent to buy land next to the St. Gabriel Community Center for the construction of a new building for the Iberville Math, Science and Arts Academy – East.

Urged by both Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. and St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace, Pinnacle Equity Group Inc. has agreed to sell the school system 16.3 acres of land on La. 30 next to the community center, which already has a cafeteria, a gym and other athletic facilities available for the eastbank academy.The asking price is $1.5 million, $335,000 higher than the appraised price.

Dr. Cancienne told the POST/SOUTH he plans to refurbish E. J. Gay School to continue housing the westbank academy, and to add a fine arts building and a science, technology English and math center there.

A new early childhood center would be built at Iberville Elementary School to accommodate the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade classes now housed with the academy at E. J. Gay, Cancienne said.

The new plan for westside construction would be cheaper than the $20 million price tag he estimated for a new academy school here, the superintendent said. He said adequate land is available at both the westbank schools.

A new 31-mill property tax went on the tax rolls this year. While half the money is dedicated to school employee pay raises, $43 million is earmarked for the building program.

The School Board approved a resolution authorizing Cancienne to execute a cash sale to buy the land next to the St. Gabriel center, and to accept the donation of $200,000 in pre-development studies, tests and surveys.

The board’s project director, Patrick Norris, said the studies include a full geotechnical investigation of the land, including a wetlands study that the school board would otherwise have to provide.

The donations would save the board the money and six months of time, Norris said.

An appraisal that Cancienne commissioned showed the land worth $71,472 an acre, or $1.165 million. The site, at La. 30 and Gordon LeBlanc Street, is the superintendent’s preference for the location of the academy.

The temporary quarters of the eastside academy are located on the community center grounds, and academy students have use of the community center facilities.

Cancienne did not know when construction of the new academy in St. Gabriel would begin, but said he hoped to see it completed within two years.

Pinnacle has been planning a 175-square-foot shopping center and a housing development for the area, Joe Spiezio of New York, representing the seller, told the School Board.

Spiezio said he had been unwilling to sell the land when Mayor Grace first approached him about it. He said was swayed by Grace’s explanation of the importance of the school to the area, agreed to meet with the superintendent and went back to talk to his board.

“I flew in this morning specifically for this because I think it’s that important,” Spiezio said. “...There’s a lot of opportunity. I’m willing to give a little to get a little.”

The developer said there is a significant demand for houses selling for less than $200,000.

“Nobody wants the school district. It became a big issue,” he said, since the quality of the local schools is the first question potential buyers ask.

Spiezio said he would benefit from having the school there, not today, but when the hosing development begins.

School Board Member Brian Willis asked how much rent the School Board would have to pay for use of the community center for the school, and asked if the board might not be better off building its own facilities.

Louis Delahaye, the board’s attorney, said the school system currently pays for utilities at the community center, and that would be the continuing asking price for its use.

“The mayor is not going to charge us for use of that facility,” Cancienne said. “He understands the value of education.”

Cancienne said he looked forward to the day when 30,000 people passing the new school on the way to LSU games paused to say: “Wow, what is happening in Iberville.”