School board weighs plans to reopen amid unknowns

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Superintendent presents draft of Strong Start Natchitoches plan

By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes..com

While there are many unknowns about how public schools will operate when they open in August, the superintendent and his staff have addressed the questions in a draft document entitled “Strong Start 2020.” The subtitle is “Together We Can.”

Supt. Grant Eloi presented the draft to the board members during a committee meeting Tuesday asking them to examine the contents prepared by the central office, principals, supervisors and directors. It contains a plethora of information stating ways to keep students and staff safe while addressing COVID-19. They address hand-sanitizing, masks, quarantine rooms, social distancing, transportation, extracurricular activities, virtual and face-to-face instruction, food service plan, COVID-19 check lists, communication, student services, athletics and more. The final document will be posted on the school board website.

Many of the agenda items will be voted on July 14.

There was discussion about several items starting with the general fund. Revenue is projected to be $47.2 million and expenses $48.5 million. The approximately $1.1 million shortfall is driven mainly by salaries and benefits. Some of the federal stimulus money can be used to address the difference. Eloi will get a cost analysis that compares in-house maintenance versus contract services. Board member Emile Metoyer asked for the study to see if there could be a savings.

The board must decide if it wants to roll forward property tax millage for 2020. The board can keep the millage the same as it was last year or roll forward to get an additional approximate $148,000. Metoyer was the most vocal criticizing companies that get tax breaks promising to hire more employees but instead have layoffs. He said property taxes were the worst kind of taxes and raising them could put a hardship on property owners. “I’m never going to support going up on property tax,” he said. “It’s unfair.”

Eloi said that property taxes are the main source of school board revenue and he wants everyone to be aware that the board may have acute budget problems. “We need to be mindful of taxpayers as well.” The roll forward must get a two-thirds vote that will probably be voted on next week.

The electronic meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, July 14 at 5 p.m.

There was a discussion about the parking lot at L.P. Vaughn. Dorothy McGaskey has raised the issue in the past and Director of Finance Richard Foshee said that gravel was to have been spread Tuesday but was delayed by the rain. McGaskey and Tan’Keia Palmer asked why two other school parking lots got overlays but L.P. Vaughn did not. Improvements to Marthaville and Natchitoches Jr. High parking lots were included in plans for bond issues but L.P. Vaughn was not. As a comparison, the parking lot at Marthaville will cost about $400,000, paid for by a bond issue passed in the Marthaville district.

Only $10,000 was allowed for the L.P. Vaughn lot and will come from district funds. The discussion ended with asking Foshee to find a better choice of gravel for L.P. Vaughn.

Eloi addressed why there will be one principal at L.P. Vaughn instead of two like last year. He said one principal was enough for that size school and the administrators from last year agreed. The decision was made for cost savings but he can add another one if needed. The school will have two staff to administer two programs to mitigate and prevent expulsions.

Toni Bennett, director of special education, gave a lengthy response to a board member’s question about whether Department of Exceptional Student Services (DESS) students received adequate services during the COVID-19 crisis. While there was anxiety about Individual Education Plans (IEP) and evaluations, Bennett said, “Teachers were remarkable in what they did.” The department was hampered by numerous procedure changes from federal and state government but continued services.

As an example of the teachers’ dedication, Bennett said 86 students were to get backpacks with grade-level materials inside. When only 19 families responded, staff went “boots on the ground” and hand-delivered many backpacks when families could not be contacted any other way. Bennett said 667 students were screened for summer services and described the detailed plans used to continue those services.

Palmer said she received complaints about preschool students at L.P. Vaughn playing in vacant rooms rather than outside last year.

She showed pictures of the playground and questioned why $5,000 raised at the school had not been used for equipment. She said teachers had given her that information. Principal Natalie Ducote said it was untrue that the Pre-K students did not play outside. She said bond money intended for the playground equipment was not coming because of other needs and that the problem with the playground was a large ditch.

Ducote said some teachers used their money to buy balls and other equipment for outside play. Although $60,000 has been budgeted for that area, some playground costs have run over $100,000 at other schools. Eloi and Palmer agreed to visit the school. The board is expected to advertise for bids on security camera systems at East Natchitoches and L. P. Vaughn; intercom system for Lakeview; and reading assessment and progress monitoring systems including math.