Meeting presents schools initiative

Michael Tortorich
Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent Donald Songy, center, and Assistant Superintendent Patrice Pujol, left, speak during the first of a series of town-hall meetings Wednesday night at East Ascension High School.

Ascension Parish School Board officials kicked off a series of town-hall meetings Wednesday night to provide information on the Oct. 17 ballot initiative which would extend the current millage through 2029.

The 15.08 millage rate was approved in October 2005 as part of the district’s construction effort to build five new elementary schools. The extension can provide $100 million to fund major facility improvements throughout the parish.

During the lightly-attended meeting held at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, officials emphasized that the plan would not increase taxes.

Assistant Superintendent Patrice Pujol touted the system’s goal of academic excellence. She said the district ranked 10th in the state in academic achievement.

She also pointed to the 64 National Board Certified Teachers working in the district, and the others who are working on getting the certification.

“It’s all about teachers, it really is,” Pujol said.

The district recently had teachers from all three levels named finalists for state teacher of the year honors. Maj. Don Bailey of Donaldsonville High School was the high school teacher of the year.

“It’s just unprecedented to have finalists in all of those levels,” Pujol said.

While the district’s 76 percent graduation rate is high for the state, she said officials are not satisfied.

Superintendent Donald Songy said the district invests much of its money in getting quality teachers. Most of the budget goes to salaries.

He said over the last three decades, the district has been in the top ten in teacher pay for the state.

Songy said the parish’s population is expected to double over the next two decades. Based on those projections, the system would have to average a new school per year to keep up with the population.

“We’ll be building schools for a long time,” the superintendent said.

The 2005 bond issue “dealt strictly with growth,” he said. The district built five new primary schools with the funds, renovated East Ascension and Donaldsonville High and upgraded technology.

Songy said the district chose to cut costs by using the same basic design for the new schools and converted some existing middle schools to 6-8 grade schools. This allowed a portion of the student population to shift down to primary schools. He said middle schools tend to cost more than primary schools, due in part to the need for extra structures like gyms and band halls.

After Hurricane Katrina in late 2005, the parish had a spike in sales taxes collected. The district was able to use the surplus funds to build a sixth school, which is the primary school currently being built in Sorrento.

Songy and Pujol both emphasized the need to upgrade older facilities.

The oldest, LeBlanc Special Services in Gonzales, was built in 1926. Gonzales Primary dates back to 1936, while Dutchtown Middle and St. Amant Middle goes back to 1937.

“We’re going to address the older facilities and get them up to speed,” Songy said. “We want the school building to be as great as the people in it.”

Songy proposed installing security cameras at schools. Principals would be able to monitor the campus from their office and law enforcement would also have access.

Major projects include a totally new campus for Carver Primary in Gonzales and a replacement facility for Prairieville Middle. Gonzales Middle and East Ascension will also be among the Gonzales area schools to be improved.

Songy said the initial list of needs totaled around $240 million.

“We didn’t want to propose a tax increase,” he said. “These were the most needed projects.”

School Board member Troy Gautreau, who represents the area, said board members support the plan.

“For the Gonzales area schools, this is desperately and sorely needed,” he said.

During a question and answer session, Songy said all of the proposed projects will be completed in some way even if over budget.

“We’ll work it one way or another,” Songy said.

Bridget Thomas, who distributed flyers for Save Our Community Schools prior to the meeting, questioned disparities in the “feeder schools” system.

Thomas presented statistics she compiled from the state Dept. of Education which she said shows disparities in economics, test scores and race.

According to the numbers she presented, all three east bank high schools are equal in the ages of school buildings, but unequal in at-risk and minority populations and state test scores.

“I would say you have a very sick patient in East Ascension High School,” she said.

Songy answered by pointing out increases in test scores.

“Right now we’re focusing on facilities and this needs to be done,” Songy said.

The next meeting will be at St. Amant High Sept. 14.

Meetings will also be held at Donaldsonville High Sept. 17 and Dutchtown High Sept. 21. All meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.