New high school for 2025 faces hurdles, controversy

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By Times Staff

A new $25-$30 million high school in the southern end of the parish could be ready for students by the 2025-26 school year if everything goes “easy” according to the Natchitoches Parish School Board Business Manager Lee Waskom. The process of building a new school can be lengthy and as we are finding out in Natchitoches Parish, also controversial. There are a lot of pieces and factors to the puzzle that must be considered. So when talk started earlier this year about a new school in the southern end of the parish, some 40 year-old wounds reopened.

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Waskom explained those issues Wednesday night to a local group of community leaders called the Agitators. Waskom said, “We have been losing students out of this parish. We are down 1,400 students in 10 years. We get $5,750.50 per student in MFP money, which makes up 45 percent of our funds.” He said we lost about 204 students last year, about half of which were Covid related. Families held children out of school because they were afraid they might bring sickness home to a family member. He predicts they might get about half of those back next year. The complaint about Natchitoches Central is that it’s really big. Students go from Marthaville School, where they know everybody, to a school where they know almost nobody.

And that is too scary.

This article published in the May 22-23, 2021, print edition

“So we are losing,” he added. They go to Pleasant Hill and to Many. If they are in the northern end of the parish they go to Castor.” Waskom said he was not sure any of this would actually stop that.

“But what we are trying to do is give us alternatives so we can be more competitive. I really want to stop this out-migration. And it costs our parish a lot of money. Just take 1,400 times $5,700 and you can see how much it cost us in the last 10 years.” The reason the district loses so many between the fifth and eighth grades at Marthaville is because, if you are going to go to Many, the Many athletic directors want them to go to their junior high or middle school so they can get involved in their system. Waskom told the group, “We have BREs. BRE’s are renewal funds that you pay taxes on. It stands for Building Repairs and Equipment. This is the money we use at the school board to repair and keep the maintenance on a building.”

“When we want to build a new building we typically pass a bond. So the bonds build the building and the BRE funds maintain it. The sales tax usually pays the teachers to operate it. That’s in a nutshell how it goes,” he explained. One of the urgencies the School Board is facing is BRE funds in three districts are expiring. One would be Cloutierville. Waskom pointed out that one has already expired but they have no school to support. Then there’s Provencal and Marthaville, both expiring this December.

“We have a unique opportunity because these go for 10 years. If we can have these three districts combined we will have about $91 million in taxable assets that we can then propose a high school in the future,” he said. “So what we’re proposing is that we only consolidate, so it gives us an option. If we don’t do this now, we will be probably consolidating Cloutierville with Provencal only and then passing BRE funds just for that and Marthaville will stay on its own.

That will not give us any opportunities to build a high school,” he reasoned. Natchitoches has one of the biggest parishes in the state and we only have two high schools. That’s very unusual according to Waskom. “Even during the Desegregation Order the parish was under for many years, which was quite destructive to a lot of the small communities in our parish, they always allowed for a third high school,” he said. “The problem is getting everybody to agree when and where. So we are trying to do this again.”

“We then have to design, and pass a bond issue to build it. Because we have so many people coming together, we can actually lower the millage for most of the people who are currently paying like 20 mills for Marthaville to 14 mills and then if we combined them all, we could get it somewhere like 11 or 12 mills for everybody,” he said.

This is something that can be on the ballot this November. If passed, it would take effect Jan. 1. Waskom told the group, “We had no idea of the passions involved. It is as if the schools shut down 40 years ago happened yesterday for some people. That’s because they were so hurt and injured by it.” He said, “We would like to offer an alternative to where we could build one high school.” He added two elementary schools could then feed one high school, just as is happening with elementary schools in Goldonna and Fairview Alpha that feed Lakeview.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know what the chances are of us being able to consolidate,” he said. “That’s the only way we have enough taxable assets to pass a bond to where we have enough money to build a high school. It would allow Marthaville and Provencal to feed into a high school just like we have in the northern end of the parish. And it wouldn’t be so scary. It would probably be 2A high school. We would be more competitive.”

Waskom said he knows there are concerns about diversity and he’s heard some of the stories. He said, “I’ve heard that Natchitoches Central would become like an all black school. No, because what you don’t realize is a large number of the Marthaville and Provencal people never make it to Natchitoches Central.

They just don’t make it there. Let me give you an example,” he added. “Marthaville’s first grade class is like two classes of 25 each. By the time they graduate the eighth grade, we might graduate 25. Of those 25 at eighth grade, 13 will make it to Natchitoches Central.” The support has changed, but the Posey Road Interchange is one of his suggestions. Because the board owns the property, it has three-phase electricity, easy access to sewer and it has water.

The access to interstate is easy. Provencal has no water, he said, and Marthaville does not have enough water to support a new high school. Waskom said one concern about Posey Road is the young drivers. He wondered if it was near a busy intersection, if there would be a problem perhaps of accidents happening with drivers in the new high school. “The one thing I like about Waterwell Road is that it is centrally located.

Granted, it is on the eastern side this new district, but it is centrally located north and south,” Waskom said. “It really needs to be due west of Exit 132 to be truly central.” He also offered that schools couldn’t be put in areas weighted by flood plans and flood zones. He said the board owns land in Flora, but it is not accessible because of the flooding. Waskom said there are a lot of factors involved in selecting a location for a new school. He said road conditions are what slows down all the busses.

A bus, normally run at 45-55 mph, has to slow down to 15 mph dragging out an already long trip. Waskom said his priority is getting the facilities fixed. There are a lot of upgrades needed at Marthaville. “I found they had $4 million sitting in an account so we’ll be spending some of those monies that were in reserve.”