Efforts underway to block closure of North iberville H.S.

Deidre Cruse

Some residents are trying to organize an effort to the Iberville Parish School Board to reverse its narrow 8-7 decision to close North Iberville High School this fall and bus 155 students to Plaquemine High School.

The board took the action last week on the recommendation of Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr., who surprised residents and board members alike when he announced the decision only six days before.

At least a hundred North Iberville students, officials, residents and educators packed the School Board meeting last Tuesday to protest the closing of the area’s only high school and the short notice they got on the proposal.

“We’re trying to work together for economic growth,” said Maringouin Mayor John F. Overton. “You take our school, we’re going to die...What leverage will we have if somebody wants to come in and we don’t have a school?”

Board Member Stanley Washington of Maringouin asked the board to postpone the decision until May to allow more discussion, but lost his motion in a 7-8 vote.

“Why now? Why North Iberville? Why the rush,” Washington asked.

North End School Board Member David “Worm” Daigle of Grosse Tete cast the deciding vote to close the school.

“My heart goes out to you,” Daigle said. “Nobody wants to shut a school down...I’ve been on the board for 10 years, and they’ve been talking about closing it for 10 years.”

“I did the best I could,” he said. “I have to support my superintendent.”

“You’re out of here, Daigle,” someone called from the crowd as the board adjourned just after the vote.

“Y’all should be very proud of yourselves,” another called.

“Don’t cry, baby,” a woman comforted a student. “God is good.”

“It’s not over yet,” said another.

Cancienne said Monday he plans to stick to his recommendation to move the students to Plaquemine, where he thinks they would get a better education.

“I wouldn’t have made the recommendation if I wasn’t committed to it,” Cancienne said in a telephone interview Monday from California. “I don’t speak for the board. I only speak for the superintendent.”

“This is an education recommendation made in the best interest of the students,” Cancienne told the School Board last week. “...This decision can’t be made strictly from the heart.”

The school could face a take-over by the state Department of Education because of its poor performance level, school officials said.

The superintendent said that 35 of 61 seventh and eighth graders at North Iberville are in a program for middle school students “who are off track, overage and just about to drop out.” Even so, he said, the school has the highest dropout rate in the parish.

“We have to see what we can do for students to get them back off the streets.”

Nearly two-thirds of North Iberville’s seventh graders are scoring at the two lowest levels (approaching basic and unsatisfactory) on standardized state tests, Cancienne said. Also, he said, nearly a third of ninth to 12th graders have to take on-line courses to qualify for TOPS scholarships.

“We need teachers to teach these high level courses,” he said. “We can do a better job transporting them to Plaquemine High School to give them this level of achievement, this level of engagement.”

After Cancienne spoke, Board President Melvin Lodge of St. Gabriel wanted to limit the public discussion to five speakers, who would be allowed to speak for five minutes each.

“As important as this matter is to these people, we should not limit the discussion,” Washington said. “Mr. Melvin, we’re going to discuss it now because the agenda says ‘to discuss.’”

Lodge stood by his restriction initially, but later allowed more than a dozen members of the audience to speak.

A number said school officials had promised improvements for North Iberville last year when they were pushing for a new 31-mill property tax for schools. North Iberville voters helped to pass the large increase, they said, but had not had time to see the changes take hold.

“The master plan didn’t say anything about closing schools,” said resident Jamie Woolfork. “You lit a fire under us whether you like it or not, and, guess what, we’re not going to let you extinguish it...The test results for this year have not come out, so what’s the rush?”

“In fairness to these people, in fairness to us, give us the opportunity to have some input,” said the Rev. Reginald Pitcher Sr. “The taxpayers who voted for the tax are the ones that have absolutely no input. It’s unfair. It’s un-American.”

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) Member Linda Johnson asked the board to delay action.

“This needs to be explored in small groups,” she said.

In letters to the board, State Sen. Robert Marionneaux of Maringouin and Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. also urged a time delay to allow for more discussion.

Former teacher Ginger Smith presented a petition with 577 signatures in support of the school.

“We don’t understand this quick backlash,” she said. “...The children don’t want to go to Plaquemine High School. If we want the children of North Iberville to do right, we must do right by them.”

Pitcher said Cancienne, who has been superintendent for two years, has said it would take more than two years to turn the situation around at North Iberville High.

“If you don’t get the results you want in two years, will you close Plaquemine High down,” he asked.

One speaker said E. J. Gay Middle School was academically unacceptable before it was turned into the Math, Science and Arts Academy.

“Why is North Iberville not considered for an MSA academy,” she asked.

Mayor Overton asked why the School Board take students from the Crescent area and bus them to North Iberville, or bus the North Iberville students over better roads to East Iberville High School.

Cancienne promised new school buses, but residents argued that did not make up for a daily two-hour commute over poor roads to Plaquemine or for the fact that the commute time would cut into the students’ extracurricular activities.

“The safety issues are immeasurable,” said Demi Vorise.

Former North Iberville principal, Shirley Jordan, said Plaquemine has been listed as a declining school twice in the last five years, while North Iberville has had “minimal growth” based on state standards. North Iberville could do much better if it had adequate teaching materials, she said.

“There’s a master plan for North Iberville that we don’t know about,” said the Rev. Donald Patterson. “...Why take what we have and destroy it? The kids are getting educated right where they are. “Why would you take that from us?”

Former school board member Janice Anderson of Maringouin said during the campaign for the tax voters were “led to believe resources would be made available to upgrade the school.”

A state takeover seems frightening, Anderson said, “but it could be a workable solution North can benefit from.”

“It’s our school, and we don’t want to be moved based on a decision [about] what you’ve seen the past two years,” student Casey Toussant said. “I hope the board will take what everyone has to say, and not just one side.”

“I feel like we have failed you,” Board Member Dorothy R. Sansoni of Plaquemine opened the board’s discussion. “The least we could have done is inform you...This is not a team-laying organization.”

Washington said he felt that he had not asked enough for the school except for certified teachers there.

“I supported the tax because it was a better vision for North Iberville. I worked hard to pass it,” he said. “...We got certified teachers and have not even seen the outcome.”

“I know what you’re going through,” said Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle, where the previous superintendent proposed closing the school. “Some people don’t have a heart up here, I’m telling you.”

She said she thought the board should support North Iberville a second chance over the next two years.

Board members Nancy T. Broussard of St. Gabriel and Yolanda Butler Laws of Plaquemine both said they had problems with the way the proposal was handled.

“I did have a lot of problems with the process,” Broussard said. “It wasn’t pleasant the whole time I spoke with Dr. Cancienne...I feel like it’s best for the educational achievement of the children.”

“We need a better way of doing business,” Laws said.

Voting to close the school were Daigle, Lodge, Broussard, and Glyna M. Kelley, Tom Delahaye, Michael J. Hebert Paul B. Distefano and Brian S. Willis, all of Plaquemine.

Voting against the closure (and for Washington’s motion) were Washington; Laws and Michael “Chief” Barbee, both of Plaquemine; Freddie “Sam” Molden of Bayou Goula, and Ourso and Albertha Hasten, both of White Castle.