Ascension Parish officials give update on early childhood development center in Donaldsonville

Michael Tortorich
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

During the July 11 Ascension Parish Council finance committee meeting in Gonzales, officials provided updates on the early childhood development center planned for the former West Ascension school campus in Donaldsonville as well as details on an interim location in the newly renovated B. Lemann and Bro. building.

Ascension Parish Chief Administrative Officer John Diez led off the discussion with a recap of what's been done so far: completed demolition of the former West Ascension school building, community outreach, and adjustments through state legislation to repurpose tax money away from "building prison for kids" and into a "more preventative approach."

"It's just going upstream, trying to be preventative instead of punitive," Diez said.

Ascension Parish, like some other parishes in the area, does not have a juvenile detention center. Juveniles are sent to a facility in St. Bernard Parish, which is east of New Orleans. 

Recently, juveniles from Louisiana were expelled from an Alabama detention center after reportedly instigating a riot. One of the juveniles was incarcerated after allegedly murdering a teenager in neighboring Iberville Parish earlier this year.

Diez has often cited the Perry Preschool Study, which involved researchers following children from their preschool program into adulthood. He shared slides of the study's findings, which he said suggested positive impacts on outcomes involving scholastic, standard of living, and criminal justice matters.

Local officials and dignitaries gathered Oct. 12, 2021 at the site of the former West Ascension school in Donaldsonville for a groundbreaking ceremony for the early childhood development center.

Though the permanent early childhood development center will be at the site of the former West Ascension campus, Utilities Director and Special Projects Manager Bill Dawson offered the conceptual plan for the interim facility.

As it will take an expected two years to construct the permanent facility, Dawson said the first floor of the historic B. Lemann and Bro. building at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Mississippi Street could be utilized sooner.

The Juvenile Justice Program Fund has $1.5 million in annual revenues from the one mill ad valorem tax, according to Dawson's slide. The fund has a projected $8.6 million balance for the end of the year. The interim facility would use $150,000 in capital, and $400,000 annually to operate.

The opening of the 7,800-square-foot interim facility is slated for January 2023, while the move to the permanent location at 1200 St. Patrick Street is set for January 2025.

The center has been planned over many months as representatives from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux have been involved with the implementation of the parish's early childhood development program.

Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan was among the local officials to applaud the new center.

"It makes me very proud as the mayor to know we are heading in the right direction," Sullivan said.

Rep. Ken Brass said the center will be a "game changer" for the west bank of Ascension Parish as well as the River Parishes region and the state.

Brass also pointed out River Parishes Community College has plans for a satellite campus in Donaldsonville to serve as a hub for neighboring parishes.

Former Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent Donald Songy stressed the importance of young students starting school ready to learn.

"Unfortunately, you won't see results next year," Songy said. "You won't see results immediately. But 20 years from now, 30 years from now, people will look back on what you did as a council, what you all did as an administration, and applaud you for the vision that you had in making something like this happen."