Judge Free upholds School Board action on North Iber. High

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The Iberville Parish School Board was within its legal rights to close North Iberville High School, District Judge Robin Free ruled Tuesday afternoon on a lawsuit challenging the action.

Free found the board did not violate either the state laws on open meetings or tax laws in closing the school, but indicated he thought Maringouin Mayor John F. Overton and the other plaintiffs did have a “moral” case.

“If this thing had been more open, I don't think we'd be here right now, I really don't,” the judge said.

“This is my moral opinion...People feel like they got duped,” he said. “That's what Mayor Overton is feeling. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably feel the same way.”

Judge Free concluded, however, that school board members on both sides of the issue had the “right intentions” when they voted 8-7 to close the high school and send North Iberville students to Plaquemine High.

“If you think what the School Board was wrong in what it did, deal with it at election time,” he said at one point.

At another, he suggested the decision is “going to come around to bite some people around here.”

After the trial, School Board attorney Mike Fontham said he was happy with the judge's legal ruling.

“A lot of it was non-legal. We disagree with a lot of it,” he said. “With the legal part, we agree 100 percent.”

“The ruling is in the best interests of the children,” Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. said. “The attorney did a good job of laying that foundation.”

The plaintiffs attorneys said they would review the case before deciding whether to appeal Free's decision.

“An appeal for the sake of an appeal is a worthless action,”   Gideon T. Carter III said.

Mayor Overton said the three communities of North Iberville were left without a school and therefore no home for economic improvements in the area.

“Trust is out the back door,” Overton said of the School Board. “There's nothing they can do, nothing they can say to bring us peace.”

Superintendent Cancienne. recommended closing the high school in an April 15 memo to the board, which cast the 8-7 vote less than a week later at an April 21 meeting.

“The thrust, the core of our case is what is best for the students,” Fontham said in his final argument. “You haven't heard a syllable about that from the other side.”

The lawyers for Overton and the other parents of school-age children who filed the lawsuit tried to show school officials violated the open meetings act and the board's own policy on public notice. They further challenged the action on grounds that Dr. Cancienne had promised improvements at North Iberville High when he campaigned for a 31-mill property tax voters approved in March 2008.

Plaintiffs attorneys Carter and Russell J. Stutes Jr. argued that Cancienne, the school system's master plan and other material distributed on the tax included North Iberville as a “four core” high school.

“People believed Dr. Cancienne, and they're here now because they shouldn't have,” Stutes said in his closing arguments. He said state law requires the tax money to be used for the “objects and purposes” for which it was intended.

If all political discourse were taken into account, Fontham said, the process “would be absolute chaos...What the taxing body is required to do is set out in the tax proposition.”

At the time of the tax, it was the intent to keep the school open, the board's attorney said. He noted, as school officials did in their testimony, that the master plan requires a re-evaluation every year.

Judge Free said he found the controlling document on the tax was the proposition on the ballot, which did not specify spending at North Iberville.

In testimony on the final day of the trial, school officials testified that North Iberville students have the opportunity to take many advanced academic classes, technical and career courses and electives, such as ROTC and band, that were not available to them at the smaller high school.

“They like it very well,” said Plaquemine High Principal Dianna Outlaw.

She said they had expected 150 North Iberville students at PHS, but got 76. Another 25 were selected for the Math, Science and Arts Academy-West at the E. J. Gay School Campus, according to Janet Marionneaux, executive director of personnel, curriculum and instruction.

Terry Gallagher, PHS guidance counselor for 23 years, said the course offerings at North Iberville had been extremely limited because of the small size of the school, which she said would have had a 10th grade class of only 10 students this year. She had made many schedule changes for the students to take such classes as ROTC, welding, arts, home economics and honors classes that had not been available to them before.

“One girl told me 'I am too smart not to take honor classes,'” Gallagher said.

She said she found the North Iberville students to be the most polite she had ever worked with, and found that they had fit in well at their new school.

“It's like they walked off the bus and fit right in,” the guidance counselor said.

Judge Free said he thought the School Board should let high school students from White Castle or East Iberville attend Plaquemine High if they wanted an opportunity for the richer curriculum.

“If a child wants to go in the right direction, don't shut them off because of some kind of bull,” Free said. “If they want to go, let them go.”