LPSB votes to move Performing Arts Academy to Comeaux High

by Patrick Flanagan

"It breaks my heart that we can't be all things to all people. But we’re not dismantling Lafayette High or destroying Lafayette High. We are responsible to the taxpayers, and I think this is an opportunity."

At its regular meeting Wednesday night, the Lafayette Parish School Board decided the fate of coveted programs currently hosted at the district’s flagship school, Lafayette High. In the end, the decision was made to move the Performing Arts Academy to Comeaux High School in 2017, and it's safe to say not everyone is happy about it.

Up for consideration were Lafayette High’s Health Careers Academy, Performing Arts Academy and gifted programs, which the board has been considering moving in some form or fashion to Comeaux High since February. Its reasoning: Lafayette High’s annually increasing enrollment, which consisted of 2,459 students for the 2015-16 school year — 437 more students than in the 2000-01 school year. Comeaux High, on the other hand, has only increased by 100 students during that same time frame, finishing the 2015-16 school year with a student population of 1,932.

Following the presentation of a video filmed and edited by Lafayette High students arguing for the board to leave the programs as they are, the board decided to leave the Health Careers Academy and gifted programs at Lafayette High and turned its attention instead on the school’s Performing Arts Academy.

According to figures provided by the school system’s chief administrative officer Joe Craig — a former principal at Comeaux High — 27.5 percent of the 441 students enrolled in the Performing Arts Academy at Lafayette High are in fact zoned for Comeaux High.

“We know there’s an issue, but we were hired to make tough decisions,” said board member Jeremy Hidalgo, whose district includes Comeaux High. “I respect the video shown tonight, but not one time did it mention our budget.”

And the budget is what it all boils down to. The board, according to The Advocate, already faces a $10.4 million shortfall, with sales tax collections down 8 percent during the 2015-16 fiscal year and expected to drop by another 7 percent over the coming year.

For former and current faculty at Lafayette High, the issue, however, is bigger than the district’s current budget woes.

Former Lafayette High gifted program teacher Melinda Mangham addresses the board in opposition to moving the Performing Arts Academy.

“If you had a company with five branches, would you take away the most successful of those,” questioned former Lafayette High gifted program teacher Melinda Mangham. “These programs are dependent on one another for the success they’ve had.”

Yet, the biggest issue raised by opponents of the board’s plans centered on Comeaux’s lack of a performing arts venue -- a non-issue if the program remains at Lafayette High.

And this is where Wednesday’s meeting grew the most contentious as Greg Robin, who’s served as director of the Performing Arts Academy for the last four years, went head-to-head with board members over the program’s relocation.

“Your children are not numbers,” said Robin, referencing the board’s repeated claim that this is all a “numbers game.”

“How long will these performing arts students have to wait for an education,” he questioned. “You’re basically asking students and voters to wait on children’s educations because it will cost more than $10 million to build an auditorium like the one at Lafayette High.”

Robin’s biggest issue centered on Comeaux’s lack of a performing arts venue, and the impact that would have if the program were to be moved from its current location. His argument was backed up by William Plummer, the choral activities director at UL Lafayette.

“I can attest to the importance of an auditorium for performance and practices,” said Plummer. “You run the risk of destroying something that’s very high achieving, and you will have blood on your hands. Instead, you could empower these students by letting them keep their performance venue.”

Justin Centanni

Unfortunately for the board that would mean leaving the program at Lafayette High. And according to board member Justin Centanni, whose district includes Lafayette High, this is not a possibility given the school's population problems (it holds the biggest student population in the state) and all the financial issues currently faced by the district. Adding to the problem are the 31 portable buildings currently dotting the Lafayette High landscape to help with housing all its students. According to Centanni, two of these buildings come with a monthly lease of $2,000. That's not the case for Comeaux High's 27 portable buildings, which are owned by the school system.

“It breaks my heart that we can’t be all things to all people,” said Centanni. “But we’re not dismantling Lafayette High or destroying Lafayette High. We are responsible to the taxpayers, and I think this is an opportunity.”

In the end, the board voted unanimously in favor of the move to Comeaux, which was intended to be the original site of the program prior to its move from the Moss Annex in 2008.

According to a June 2 story in The Advertiser, district officials will use an administrative rule adopted last year stating that rising seniors and their siblings can remain at their current school for one year. That means students who will be Lafayette High seniors in 2017-18 have the option of graduating from Lafayette High or moving to Comeaux with the Performing Arts Academy, the paper reported.

"Lafayette High was never built to be the largest school in the state," Centanni tells The Independent Thursday morning. "Now that we have the new high school opening [in Youngsville], it would be irresponsible to leave it at 2,500 students."

The goal, says Centanni, was to get Lafayette High's population down by at least 200 students, and with Wednesday night's decision, that was achieved and then some with about 300 students now slated to be moved over to Comeaux, bringing Lafayette High's population down to the 2,200 range.

The board's decision, however, still leaves the question of Comeaux’s lack of a performing arts venue up in the air. Will the district build a new venue for the school in the foreseeable future? Unlikely.

District officials did offer up some possibilities.

“For a small amount of money, the board can budget for rental space,” suggested Superintendent Don Aguillard.

For big productions, this could include Angelle Hall, The Bayou Church or the Comeaux Recreation Center.

The long-term solution — a brand new venue — is a bit trickier, according to Aguillard.

“We want state-of-the-art facilities for every student in this parish, and we’re hampered by facility deficits in this district,” said Aguillard. “The long-term solution would be a bond proposition. But we can’t afford to misfire. We can’t ask voters for this and then have it fail."