Superintendent shifting plans for Plaq. school construction

Deidre Cruse

Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. wants to scrap plans to build a new school to house the westside Math, Science and Arts Academy, and to expand E. J. Gay and Iberville Elementary schools instead.

Some Iberville Parish School Board members wanted to know why Cancienne did not tell them that the plans for spending construction money from a new 31-mill property tax past last year might be changed.

“We promised Plaquemine people that we would build a new building on this side,” Board Member Brian S. Willis of Plaquemine said in raising the issue at Monday night’s board meeting.

Willis said the academy program is probably “the best thing that every happened to Iberville Parish,” but he said he has been getting numerous questions about plans for the westside. He called on Cancienne to hold public hearings on the plan.

“Go out and have hearings in the community so they can leave me alone about this,” he said.

“The plans are not to spend less on the west bank, but to spend it more efficiently to meet the demands,” Cancienne said.

Cancienne said he plans to sent out a flyer out on the use of the tax money in March, a year after its passage.

Demand for the academy program has increased so that it would cost $32 million to $36 million to build a new westside school, he and Project Director Patrick Norris told the board. An offer from A. Wilbert’s Sons to donate land for the building also fell through, they said.

“The people want something bigger than we can build for $18 million,” the superintendent said.

He and Norris presented cost estimates from Plaquemine architect Brad Guerin for $16.7 million in new westside facilities that would include:

-- A new 20,000-squre-foot performing arts building and a new 2,000-square-foot science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) center addition, plus interior renovations and site improvements at the E. J. Gay campus to house the academy program. Guerin estimated the cost at $11.7 million.

-- The addition of a new early childhood development center, a new 5,000-square-foot STEM center, an auxiliary gymnasium/dining facility and site improvements at Iberville Elementary School to accommodate elementary school children that would have gone to class at E. J. Gay under the old plan. Guerin estimated the cost at $5 million.

Board Member Dorothy R. Sansoni of Plaquemine said the plan would expand Iberville Elementary’s enrollment from 700 to nearly 900.

“In three years, I have to find a place for these children,” Cancienne said. “The place I’m recommending is Iberville Elementary school.”

“Did the board approve this,” asked Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle after Norris distributed the estimates. “I don’t recall anything sent to me or approved.”

Cancienne said the board ultimately makes the decision on school construction.

“The board has never seen this,” Ourso said. “It would be nice for us to know what is going on.”

The superintendent said he had not presented the plan to the board for approval because “it’s a work in progress.”

Ourso asked Cancienne to “come before us before any ground is broken.”

“I don’t think anybody believes this is the final proposal,” said Board Member Tom Delahaye of Plaquemine. “...It’s really early to be concerned about what this says and what’s going to happen at the end of the day.”

Board Member Nancy T. Broussard of St. Gabriel said the board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee needed to start meeting regularly and to “get its process in order.”

“I think everybody understands there will be changes,” Broussard said, asking for the superintendent to make a better effort to communicate with the board, possibly by making it part of his monthly report.

Board Member Yolanda Butler Laws of Plaquemine said Cancienne should have communicated the plan to all school board members.

“This is changing direction, and I think the board should know it,” Laws said, adding later “not half the board.”

When the tax was proposed, Willis said, the board was told that E. J. Gay School was not suitable to house the academy, or magnet school, program.

Elvis J. Cavalier, the school district’s director of special projects and head of the academy program, said he had found that E. J. Gay had been built with the future in mind. One laboratory at the school would cost $250,000 if it were replaced today, he said.

But. the school had to be scrubbed clean of graffiti and required other improvements before he and the academy program moved in, Cavalier said.

In other discussion Monday night, Sansoni and Board Member Albertha Hasten of White Castle questioned the handling of repairs at local schools.

Sansoni, who voted against spending $16,000 for a tractor and equipment for site work, said the 500 children at Iberville Elementary have only one working water fountain.

“We have to think about the safety of the children,” Hasten said, citing problems at Dorseyville Elementary and White Castle High schools.

“We are prioritizing on a daily basis,” Norris said. “We are totally reactive.”

He said maintenance crews get to work orders as quickly as they can, but often are pulled away to keep air conditioners running.

“You do not have a maintenance crew,” he said.

Maintenance director T-Joe Distefano said maintenance personnel completed 15,049 work orders between January 2008 and January 2009, and had not completed 323 of them.

The year included additional work brought on by Hurricane Gustav, which set the maintenance staff back by three or four months, he said. Distefano added that he gets 15 to 30 work requests a day.

For most of the year, the school system had only five maintenance workers, but now is up to nine, he said.

“We’re doing what we can with what we got, and we’re getting better,” Distefano said.

Outside the meeting, Distefano said the maintenance department is criticized for its failures, but gets no credits for its successes.

And, before the meeting, Dr. Cancienne provided a tour of his and his secretary’s newly renovated offices, work he said that was long overdue.

The outer office includes a table for school board members, and Cancienne’s office accommodates not only his desk, but a work table and an overhead for his meetings with school principals – “like a classroom,” he said.

Chief Finance Officer Jolain Landry said the renovations cost $22,000.