NEWS

Judge rules in favor of School Board; North Iberville to remain closed

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

Judge Robin Free ruled Tuesday afternoon in favor of the Iberville Parish School Board. He rejected claims that state laws were violated in advance of a vote to close North Iberville High School. A lawsuit was filed May 22 claiming School Superintendent Ed Cancienne violated state Open Meeting Laws.

“VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE”

The Iberville Parish School System would have had to hire 35 qualified teachers two months into the current school term and spend $1.43 million on staffing, plus other costs, to reopen North Iberville High School this year, a school official testified Tuesday.

It would be “virtually impossible” to hire 35 qualified teachers at this point in the school year, Janet Marionneaux, executive director of personnel, curriculum and instruction, told the 18th Judicial District Court.

Marionneaux was one of two witnesses to testify Tuesday morning as District Judge Robin Free reopened the trial of a lawsuit Maringouin Mayor John F. Overton and others filed against the School Board to reopen the North End's only high school. Backers of both sides of the issue hoped for a verdict by the end of the day.

Overton's attorney, Gideon T. Carter III, continued to question whether a school board policy requiring public notification had been followed before the School Board's April 20 decision to close the school and send some 155 seventh to 12th graders to Plaquemine High School this fall.

Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. recommended closing the school in a memo to the board only five days earlier.

Marionneaux and School Board Member Brian S. Willis of Plaquemine both testified that the boardroom was packed with North Iberville supporters at the April 20 meeting, and many spoke before the board's controversial 8-7 vote to close the high school.

About 75 of the North Iberville students are attending Plaquemine High this fall, while some 25 others won a place at the Math, Science and Arts Academy – West by lottery, Marionneaux said.

Carter suggested that other students in the North Iberville High district have been attending school in West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes over the years, leaving a small student body at North Iberville School.

Marionneaux said the students' parents would have had to get a judge's order turning over custody to someone in the other school systems for that to be legal.

The difficulty of providing good high school educations to students at such a small school was one of Dr. Cancienne's main reasons for recommending its closure, she said.

Marionneaux said school officials received word during a board retreat in New Orleans in July 2008 that the parents of four or five North Iberville students complained that their children had not qualified to attend colleges and universities because they did not have the high school coursework.

“They were outraged,” the director said, adding that they should have been.

The situation led to an investigation and to Cancienne's recommendation last April. During the 2008-09 school year, she testified, North Iberville High lost 15 percent more of its students.

“I think it was the right decision for the greater benefit of the students,” Marionneaux said.

She said the school system could not provide the advanced academic classes, nor the technical and career educational opportunities they have at Plaquemine High.

The plaintiffs also are trying to show that Cancienne had campaigned to pass a new 31-mill tax for school raises, construction and other improvements, including upgrades at North Iberville.

Marionneaux said the plans were based on the school system's master plan developed by “roundtable advisory committees” of community leaders and parents.

Cancienne, she said, had not intended to close North Iberville High at the time the tax was up for a vote. Marionneaux said that under every proposal in the master plan is a statement that the program would be reviewed annually to determine its effectiveness.

Carter said Marionneaux would be his last witness. He said School Board attorney Mike Fontham planned to call several witnesses and to recall Cancienne to the stand on the second, and possibly final, day of the trial.

Judge Free originally set a trial day in July, before the opening of school, but postponed it until August 12, two days after school began. It was continued until Tuesday because the lawyers for the two sides had other commitments.