The main discussion at the school board committee meeting Tuesday was about building a new high school to serve students in the southern part of the parish, Marthaville and Provencal. It would accommodate about 400 students and have “a very ambitious” opening in August of 2024. Potential sites include school board property on Water Well Road and other property on La. Hwy. 6.
The new “super district 11” would be created only for taxing purposes with the 11-member school board remaining in tact. The school would be paid for through a bond issue. Supt. of Schools Dr. Grant Eloi conducted exit interviews with most of the parents of 60 students that left the district during COVID-19. He said the major issues they stated had to do with the size of Natchitoches Central High School (NCHS) and the distance some had to travel to school.
There is also a void resulting from the closure of the Cloutierville school with elementary and junior high students mostly attending Provencal. Elementary and junior highs at Provencal and Marthaville would feed into the new school. Eloi and Director of Finance Lee Waskom spoke to the problem the school system is facing with competition for students from other parishes, potential charter and virtual schools and private schools. He believes a new school would reverse that trend. The school system has lost 1,000 students and approximately $6 million in state funding over the last decade and lost $1.4 million when the 60 students left the system during COVID. Eloi said that schools must now be competitive for students.
During the exit interviews, parents were complimentary of Natchitoches Central and their problems dealt only with size. If the new school is built, there would be emphasis on putting resources into NCHS and Lakeview and maintaining diversity. The board will host meetings about the proposal at Provencal April 20 and at Marthaville April 22, with both meetings at 6 p.m.
In other business, Eloi announced that the system had its first long-term substitute pass the Praxis, or national teacher exam, after attending tutoring classes at Northwestern State. The school board will reimburse the teacher for the fee for the test that is between $60 and $120. The board began the program of paying for the tutoring classes and Praxis, if passed, as a way to encourage long-term subs to become certified teachers. During his report, Eloi said that the system will maintain the 6-foot rule for social distancing and during March, only four cases of COVID-19 cases were reported among teachers and students.
He encouraged all employees to get the vaccine as well as students 16 and older. Natchitoches has a 2.8 positivity rate. The system will maintain a virtual school although only 18 percent of students are still virtual. He appointed Kristy Irchirl to be the virtual school principal that will serve students who are homebound, have been expelled, are behind in their studies or who are truly hardship cases. He said most virtual students want to return. Summer school will have a “camp atmosphere” when it is conducted June 7-24. In addition to academics, the school will offer art, physical education and music.
When the board meets today, Thursday, it is expected to vote to donate the Cloutierville school building and 13 acres to Natchitoches Parish Fire District 1. The fire district board plans to use the school as a fire station as well as a fitness center and training facility for firemen and potentially a community center.
The board is also seeking to have participation from the Sheriff’s Office, Natchitoches Regional Medical Center and ambulance service with centers at the school. School Board attorney Joe Stamey is working out the legal details with the fire district and Eloi will be authorized to sign the final document.
Board member Tan’Keia Palmer gave a passionate statement about the need for teachers to be compensated for their efforts during the pandemic. She said the board was mistaken if they thought the teachers were satisfied with their salaries and bonuses when the board was hiring grant writers and instructional specialists. She said the teachers are constantly exposed to the virus that is emotionally and physically draining Eloi told Palmer that legally, the board cannot compensate the teachers for past work. But he is investigating if federal funds can be used for COVID-19 preparedness.
It may include teachers attending after-school training by watching a video, possibly on their cell phones, and being compensated. “Give me a month,” he said, to work out the details. He will report at the next meeting.