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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There's little dispute that Lafayette Parish needs a career and technical high school. But the speed with which the school board is moving to acquire the abandoned Super Kmart on Ambassador Caffery, the lack of taxpayer oversight on this almost $50 million project, and a history of fiscal mismanagement raise serious questions about the board's ability to spend our money prudently.  An Independent Weekly analysis

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There's little dispute that Lafayette Parish needs a career and technical high school. But the speed with which the school board is moving to acquire the abandoned Super Kmart on Ambassador Caffery, the lack of taxpayer oversight on this almost $50 million project, and a history of fiscal mismanagement raise serious questions about the board's ability to spend our money prudently. An Independent Weekly analysis

[Editor's Note: The School Board has scheduled a workshop on its facilities master plan for Monday, Nov. 15 at 5 p.m., followed by a special board meeting at 6:30 p.m. to take up the issue of purchasing property for its career and technical high school.]

Initially this was going to be an excoriation of the Lafayette Parish School Board for even considering purchasing a deteriorating, vacant big-box store on the busiest street in Lafayette to put a high school there. What are they thinking?

An architect's diagram shows one option for Thibodaux Career and
Technical High School: gutting the old Super Kmart on Ambassador.

Empiricism being what it is, we're simply urging the board to slow the process down and let the public wrap its brain around this plan. We're not opposed to a career and technical high school for Lafayette Parish; we even like the concept and the means by which it will help address overcrowding at the five existing public high schools. Lafayette Parish needs another high school. We don't dispute that. The existing high schools are by and large over-populated and in need of significant repair or replacement. Our concern, and the concern of many thoughtful people in our community, is that this process - specifically zeroing in on the long-vacant Kmart building on Ambassador Caffery at what appears to be the 11th hour - is far outpacing our ability to grow comfortable with it. In two months a new board will be sworn in. It's our view that it should make this decision, following input from a better-informed public.

While it was a rumored for months that the board was considering the Kmart property on Ambassador - especially after it pulled $4.5 million out of the maintenance budget in June to purchase a site for the new school - it wasn't made official until Oct. 14, less than a month ago. Since then, several people have stepped forward to urge the board to exercise caution with this huge fiscal undertaking - an undertaking that will lead next week to a workshop during which board members will figure out how they'll finance the almost $50 million project, followed immediately by a special board meeting to vote on purchasing the Kmart building to house the Thibodaux Career and Technical High School.

Outgoing District 5 school board member Mike Hefner
is an outspoken proponent of expediting the
career/tech high school project. 
Photo by Robin May

At this point, a vote in favor of acquiring the property seems dangerously close to a fait accompli, and District 5 school board member Mike Hefner acknowledged last week that if the vote were held on the day we spoke, the board would almost certainly vote in favor of the Kmart property.

In the backdrop is a comprehensive facilities master plan that took nearly a million dollars to develop and will cost more than a billion to implement, should the parish accept and agree to fund the recommendation of CSRS, the Baton Rouge planning firm contracted to study our needs and make recommendations. CSRS rightly identified pressing maintenance needs among our schools. The central point of our deep reservation about this rush to judgment is this: We question whether a new high school, while certainly needed, is a greater priority than the many identified in CSRS' master plan.

We urge the board to step back, and to give the community time to consider both the proposed location for the sixth high school in the parish as well as the means by which the project will be financed - and how this expensive new project fits into the school system's larger scheme of spending priorities. A workshop followed immediately by a vote is simply imprudent and, arguably, highly counter-productive to the school board's need to build credibility with voters.

The high school will bear the name of late school board
member David Thibodeaux, seen here at right in a detail
from a March 24, 2002, Daily Advertiser photo with
former board member and now state Rep. Rickey Hardy. 
The two attended a protest against the very board on
which they sat over the proposed closure of
Vermilion Elementary School.

The need for hundreds of millions in school maintenance and repairs is undeniable, and the ongoing maintenance problem was exacerbated by the loss of another $4.5 million for the new high school. But the board's impending Kmart plan will do serious damage to its already tattered reputation for lack of planning and fiscal prudence. It may well be that the public could ultimately embrace the plan. At first blush we like the concept - a four-year high school that qualifies for TOPS and TOPS TECH, training students, in addition to a core academic curriculum, in fields as wide ranging as welding and information technology, and preparing them to move on to a two-year vocational school, community college or four-year university.

Each of the five existing high schools in the parish would be allotted roughly 250 seats, and then the school system would use a lottery to select the students, assuming there's a demand that exceeds that limit, thereby alleviating overcrowding in the existing schools.

We're good with that. All of it. And it is true, board members are charged with making many momentous decisions like this, but they likewise have a responsibility to demonstrate to voters the full extent of their due diligence on decisions involving this kind of investment. The impact of this plan on school system finances will reach far beyond Thibodaux Tech's $50 million price tag. The board has a big responsibility to fully vet this with the community - and it has yet to do so.

In CSRS' October 2009 master plan presentation to the
board, the firm indicated that abandoned retail centers
such as the Kmart location "were not cost effective or
conducive to creating a successful learning environment
without a large amount of financial and professional
Photo by Robin May

"It's important to high school dropout prevention and it's important to keep the kids in school, and the state effort on graduating kids in four years from high school, and keeping kids moving toward career choices so they're better prepared for the future. We're very aware of that," says Thetis Cusimano, a member of the League of Women Voters and the Community Coalition for Lafayette Schools, the latter of which has worked closely with the board and central office in developing the comprehensive facilities master plan. "We support the comprehensive high school. But the needs of the other schools are very dire at this point and the other high schools, too. So we would like to have the funding, the total funding, and the priorities set by the board and how the financing would be done for all of them in one package as they did in the master plan that CSRS has completed. The board hasn't discussed that yet; they've only discussed the comprehensive high school. We would like to have the discussions occur together."

The school system, according to Hefner, has been planning a career and technical high school for more than 15 years. The public has heard little talk of this.

In October of last year the board was presented with a recommendation for a comprehensive career and technical high school from CSRS - one of many steps in the master planning process. The firm was paid $900,000 to study our school system's facilities and to generate, in part through community dialogues that were poorly attended, the facilities master plan. We are struck by an observation CSRS, which included Lafayette-based Architects Southwest as part of its team, makes in the executive summary to the career/tech high school recommendation: "We investigated vacant commercial structures such as strip mall centers, large department stores, and office complexes that could be converted into learning environments. They were not cost effective or conducive to creating a successful learning environment without a large amount of financial and professional investment."

Pros and Cons of the Kmart site

High visibility, Greyfield site (environmentally responsible)
Time advantage, Site utilities in place, Weather related delays minimized

Traffic access in and out of site, Unknown site/building
conditions will exist, Stuctural bays will be limiting
Final building design defined by footprint of existing retail

Source: Architects Southwest

CSRS' recommendation was that N.P. Moss Middle School, which is currently under-utilized due to its poor academic performance, be used as the career and technical high school, either through the high school and the middle school sharing the facility or by phasing out the middle school through attrition. Public opposition to the plan, in large part generated by the community group 100 Black Men, put the kibosh on that. Opponents of the plan argued that Lafayette would lose another neighborhood school due to our school district's inability to address academic problems; the school's population is down because the state allows parents to opt out of Moss, which has been classified as an "academically unacceptable" school for the past three years, making it poised for a state takeover.

Now, one year later, the school board is set to purchase a vacant commercial structure and convert it into a learning environment - exactly what CSRS recommended against in its October 2009 report.

Hefner says when the master planning process was initiated, CSRS was asked to evaluate several possible locations including existing schools, open land owned by the board as well as vacant commercial property, and the Kmart building was the second option presented by CSRS.

But, he adds, because environmental assessments needed to be done on the Kmart building - they came back good, Hefner says, had they not the Kmart option would have been abandoned - the option didn't move into the public discussion of the board until a few weeks ago. Our problem with this is, it wasn't even mentioned to taxpayers until three weeks ago.

Consequently, there's been little time for public input and discussion, and the input that has been offered thus far has largely been one of questioning the process and the plan.

"I really can't find enough good reasons to do this at this time and at this location," says architect Kirby Pécot. "Historically, the school board has had problems making good business decisions about building new schools." Pécot specifically points to the board's construction of four new schools in the late 1990s while ignoring a 1965 federal court order to desegregate and then being forced by the courts to build a fifth school for which it had not budgeted. (The two board members pushing hardest for the new career and technical school, Hefner and Carl LaCombe, were on the board during that time and served with David Thibodaux, the late board member after whom the high school is named; both Hefner and LaCombe are leaving in January.)

"If a private developer were undertaking a project like this, the bank would demand to see a business plan identifying the reasons the project should move forward," adds Pécot. "That would include a traffic impact analysis. In this case the taxpayers are the bank. If a business plan has been developed, it should be made available to the public."

Another outspoken critic of the Kmart purchase is Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux.

"There's no question about it: Buying land that fronts Ambassador Caffery is not going to be the best value for their money. It's not like they're trying to attract retail customers," Comeaux says. "They're bussing them in there. Why don't you go down Ridge Road just a half a mile and buy some farm land there instead of buying something that fronts on Ambassador?"

The school board contends, based on an Architects Southwest analysis of land in the same vicinity of the Kmart, on Rue de Belier and Ridge Road, that it would cost several million dollars more to build a school from the ground up; it appears that less expensive tracts in other parts of the parish have not yet been evaluated.

Comeaux's concerns are echoed by real estate developer Jeremiah Supple: "It makes absolutely no sense to have a school at that location. They need to slow down. They need to put this out in the general marketplace and evaluate other proposals," he says, likening the purchase of the Kmart building to other dubious public investments in Lafayette in recent years. "The LITE building. That was a stupid decision; that thing costs us about $3 million a year."

Comeaux also questions the funding priorities. The board is likely to choose a bonding option that will not be subject to voter approval, but paying back those bonds will cost anywhere from $4 million to $10 million per year - money that will be drawn from the revenue stream the school system gets through sales and property taxes. Comeaux believes that money could be better spent.

"Why are we spending money on the back end trying to fix a problem with dropouts when we don't have kids that can get to that point who can read and write and do the math that it takes to do what it is they're wanting them to do?" he wonders. "Why aren't we spending that $4 million per year on the front end taking kids in the early ages so that they're all prepared to do the technical skills that are going to be required, like measuring and calculating and figuring?"

Hefner rightfully disputes that the career and technical high school will be a "dumping ground" for at-risk students, kids who might otherwise drop out. It's a school of choice, he says - no different from the academies for health sciences and performing arts at Lafayette High or the academy of engineering at Northside. There are currently 49 students enrolled in Thibodaux Career and Technical High School, temporarily housed at Acadiana Technical College-Lafayette.

"We've already made a commitment to these students that we're going to have a career and technical high school in place," Hefner says. "In fact, we had 150-something students in place until someone starting making some noise that maybe we weren't going to go through with it, and then we lost 100 of them. But we are going to do it, just like we did with the French Immersion program - we started that with 40 kids. It's going to build on itself, I have no doubt about it. I've heard from too many kids and parents that are so excited about this opportunity, more so than any project that I've been involved with."

Some opponents worry about the impact a high school will have on
traffic around the congested Ambassador/Johnston corridor.
Photo by Robin May

Hefner believes some in the community are trying to undermine the board because they're opposed to the concept of a career and technical high school. That may be the case with some. But we believe there is informed opposition generated by the perceived rush to purchase the property as well as a failure to place it in the context of other spending priorities, and, as we learned in an article Saturday in The Daily Advertiser, apparent subterfuge in the means by which the Kmart property moved front and center as the object of the board's affection.

In that article we learned that, although the school system made no mention of the Kmart site despite persistent rumors, engineers began an assessment process on the site last spring, more than seven months ago. And the firms contracted to do this - through a no-bid contract it's worth noting - were paid nearly $40,000.

But after the N.P. Moss plan was abandoned in March, the timeline suggests the school board set its sights on the Kmart property, spent tens of thousands of dollars having it evaluated, didn't let on that this was happening, and then three weeks ago acted as if the Kmart site was suddenly the favored candidate.

Buyer beware.

The old Super Kmart would be stripped to its superstructure to
accommodate a career/tech high school.

We also have to ask where the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce is in this discussion. The chamber comprises a professional class of business people with a wide range of expertise, and it is an entity that has, in the past, been energetically engaged in civic affairs, especially public education, which produces the workforce upon which the entire business community relies. The chamber's role is vital here.

Nearly a decade ago the chamber marshalled its considerable resources to support a parishwide half-cent sales tax devoted to raising teacher pay. The quid pro quo in that endorsement was the school system's agreement to adhere to performance goals and a very detailed plan for achieving them. The sales tax passed, in no small part thanks to the chamber's endorsement and support.

But by 2009, two things had happened: The school board had made a mockery of its end of the deal; it simply ignored its commitments. And chamber management awoke to the embarrassing awareness that it had been equally AWOL in failing to provide school board oversight. By 2009, when the chamber finally got around to realizing that the school system wasn't anywhere close to meeting those goals, it demanded the school board adopt reform measures being championed at the time by state Superintendent Paul Pastorek and others. The board cantankerously declined. Relations between the two have been chilly ever since.

But just earlier this year, the chamber announced that its newly minted political action committee, EmpowerPAC, would play an active role in local and state politics. Chamber President Rob Guidry told The Ind at the time that public education is too important a topic for the chamber to sit on the sidelines. The chamber's PAC initiated its new involvement in public education by interviewing candidates for open school board seats and then making endorsements in the races. It did it with the vigor of tepid tap water.

"We're interested in them speaking to the fact that they will be governing a school system that has a product, and that product is going to be used by the business community as a workforce," Guidry said in September as the candidate interview process got under way. But the chamber punted - they shanked it badly, really - when the PAC endorsed both candidates in two of the five competitive districts.

As regrettable as it is, the chamber of commerce has been silent on the Kmart/Thibodaux Tech issue, and it appears prepared to remain so. To say the least, its silence doesn't comport well with its own stated goals regarding public education in Lafayette Parish.

It could well be that the chamber's unwillingness to engage with this very important decision by the school board - a decision that will commit our parish to a $50 million expenditure and monopolize upwards of $10 million per year in revenue as we move headlong into what is at least fiscal uncertainty and is more likely a prolonged period of declining sales tax revenue - is a symptom of broader disengagement with public education by our community. When reaching out for comments from people we believed could speak articulately about the feasibility of converting a big-box retail building into a school and the implications for smart-growth planning, we spoke with the head of Lafayette Consolidated Government's Planning, Zoning & Codes Department who hadn't even heard about the proposal to purchase the old Kmart building. Hadn't even heard about it, although it had been in and out of newspapers and on television for nearly three weeks.

The community dialogues that the school system and CSRS hosted at J.W. Faulk and Plantation elementary schools over the course of several months to discuss the master plan were sparsely attended, too. Yes, public education can be a dull topic, but it's vitally important that Lafayette embrace the idea that the quality of public education is interwoven with a community's prosperity, with its attractiveness to companies considering moving or expanding there. It is the top determiner of quality of life.

Look at New Orleans and, increasingly, Baton Rouge. The former has long been and the latter is quickly becoming an inner city wasteland from which the middle class flees. We don't want that to happen to Lafayette, but many believe we're on that trajectory.

We don't doubt that a majority if not all of the current members of the school board are well-intentioned, and we're willing to embrace a career and technical high school for the parish. But many in the community including this newspaper have reservations about Thibodaux Tech's location, financing, and its place in the school system's depressingly large list of school facility repairs and building maintenance - and what strikes us as a head-spinning rate at which this process is moving.

The Lafayette Parish School Board has an obligation to spend our money wisely. The infrastructure of our public school system is in jeopardy to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We have little doubt that Thibodaux Career and Technical High School will be an asset to our community. But we question whether proceeding with this project at a time when we've yet to determine how to fund the comprehensive facilities master plan, of which the career/tech high school is a part, is a wise expenditure of public dollars. The plan's $1.1 billion price tag includes $590 million in "priority needs."

Slow it down. The Kmart building has been sitting idle for nearly a decade. It'll still be there in a few months.
**What Do You Think?
**Contact your school board member to voice your opinion on the proposed Thibodaux Career
and Technical High School

Carl LaCombe, District 2
School Board President
Home: 896-5837
Office: 237-5300
Email: [email protected]

Mike Hefner, District 5
School Board Vice-President
Office: 873-4244
Cell: 739-4499
Email: [email protected]

Mark Allen Babineaux, District 1
Office: 337-233-7766
Email: [email protected]

Shelton J. Cobb, District 3
Home: 233-4199
Email: [email protected]

Edward Sam, District 4
Home: 233-2871

Gregory Awbrey, District 6
Home: 981-6955
Cell: 296-4457
Email: [email protected]

Mark Cockerham, District 7
Cell: 337-207-4757
Email: [email protected]

Hunter Beasley, District 8
Home: 269-1894
Email: [email protected]

Rae B. Trahan, District 9
Home: 856-8742

Site Selection
The LPSS is recommending two options for the Thibodaux Career and Technical High School, both of which include locating the school at the former Super Kmart on Ambassador Caffery Parkway.

Option One:
Abandoned Super Kmart building (192,152 square feet) and 20.43 acres
Negotiated purchase price: $4.5 million
Appraisal: $4.8 million

Tract 1: 5.92 acres along Ridge Road, immediately adjacent to Kmart building
Negotiated purchase price: $515,000
Appraisal: $515,000

Quint M Partnership property (John Montesano), 58.45 acres at Ridge Road and Rue de Belier
Purchase price negotiations still under way. Asking price: $3,618,142
Appraisal: $2,342,000 (Montesano contends an appraisal conducted 3 months before the school board's values the property at $3.6 million)

Construction without athletic complex: $41,213,051

Option Two:
Abandoned Super Kmart building (192,152 square feet) and 20.43 acres
Negotiated purchase price: $4.5 million
Appraisal: $4.8 million

Tract 1: 5.92 acres along Ridge Road, immediately adjacent to Kmart building
Negotiated purchase price: $515,000
Appraisal: $515,000
Tract 2: 11.39 acres along Ridge Road, immediately adjacent to Tract 1
Negotiated purchase price: $1,143,849.75
Appraisal: $992,000

Construction without athletic complex: $41,213,051
Total: $47,371,900.75

Source: The Advocate/LPSS