School Board contracts with EpicTouch to provide broadband to rural students

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Issues concerning this parking lot on Parkway next to the transportation complex should be resolved by month’s end. Photo by Sierra Pesnell

Carolyn Roy | News Editor

Labeled as a new way of doing business, the Natchitoches Parish School Board voted to contract with EpicTouch to install broadband technology that will enable almost every student in the parish to have a high-speed Internet connection. The school board vote came at its meeting Thursday. Ninety-five percent of households with children the district serves can have fiber optic broadband access in their homes. They will still need to contact EpicTouch and sign an agreement to bring it into their homes.

Seamless Gutters

According to EpicTouch rates, for roughly $67 per month, they will have high speed Internet service in their homes and save on currently installed  satellite and DSL providers as well as satellite TV services. There will be no free Internet service provided to students but there is a federal program to give qualifying households a $50 break on their monthly service.

This article published in the July 10, 2021, print edition

Tuesday, EpicTouch Plant Engineer Donnie Barker talked to the board about the advantages of the technology that will take Internet service to 5,000 residences in the parish. He said that 626 student residences in the parish are now without Internet service. It will take about two years to complete the broadband technology that will be available in 95 percent of the parish.

There are some remote areas where the service will not be available but students in those areas will possibly be issued “hot spot” devices to give them access. Although the broadband services will be available to students, the program is not administered by the school board. Details of the services are available at emergencybroadband.org

According to a Federal website, “The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), is a temporary emergency federal government benefit program operated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) aimed at ensuring connectivity to eligible households and those consumers affected by the pandemic. The EBB program is expected to end 6 months after the Secretary of Health Services determines that a public health emergency no longer exists or when the funds are depleted. Only one EBB benefit per household is allowed.”

EpicTouch’s price for the installation is $8 million. Barker said his company was poised to order the fiber optics cable when the school signs the contract. He also said the CEO reduced the price by $2 million and the company wants to be a partner in the project.

School Board Finance Director Lee Waskom said the board has $1.2 million available from Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds with the balance to be paid from more Federal funding that will be forthcoming. Barker said his company was prepared to accept commitment of the $1.2 million so he can order the fiber optics that will be stored until work begins. The $8 million earmarked for the project comes from Federal ESSER funds that are part of President Joe Biden’s stimulus money.

The COVID-19 pandemic that closed face-to-face schools highlighted the number of students who did not have Internet access for virtual classes.

In other news, the board gave notice it intends to call a special election to fill the vacancy created when board member Katrina Fowler Willis resigned. Willis sent her letter of resignation to the La. Sec. of State and state law requires that the board appoint a new member on or before July 21. The next election date will be March 26, 2022, and the following April 30 if a runoff is necessary. Qualifying will be Jan. 26-28, 2022. If the board does not appoint a member by the deadline, a commission will be issued to appoint a member to fill Willis’ position.

Ernestine Sawyer
Cheryl Britt

Earnestine Sawyer and Cheryl Britt were at the meeting Thursday and asked to be appointed to fill the vacancy. Others who want to apply should do so by noon July 14. They should submit a letter of intent and proof of address to the superintendent by email or in person at the school board office on Royal Street. The board will make its selection at a special called meeting July 15 at 5 p.m., at the school board office.

The board has decided to delay the discussion of consolidating three districts into a new District 11 to facilitate building a new high school. Instead, the board voted to hire an independent consultant to conduct an in-depth, parish-wide study of academics facilities and demographics demographics. Eloi said he hoped the public will interpret the study as a message “that the board is listening.”

The board will proceed with calling for tax elections in Districts 8 and 10. The board will meet Thursday, Aug. 5 at 5 p.m. to call an election for Districts 8 and 10 to pass resolutions to authorize renewal of building, repair and equipment (BRE) taxes.

Lakeview Principal William Hymes and football coach and Athletic Director Brandon Helms thanked the board for approving advertising for bids for new turf for the football stadium. Helms said it would be a game-changer for the school that has 157 students registered for LHSAA teams. The school enrollment is 278. Other students will have access to the field that Helms said would be “a top 2A facility.” “These are very important implementations of tax dollars,” Hymes said.

ECCO Ride Vice President Ryan Johnson introduced the transportation staff that included new Operations Manager Felicia Washington. Also introduced were dispatchers Melissa Blake and Tammy Rushing and mechanic Michael Weeks. Not at the meeting were Michael and Sam Johnson. The main problem facing the bus service is that President Biden has required masks be worn on public transportation, including school buses. Supt. Dr. Grant Eloi said everyone would be grappling with that decision.

Child Nutrition Program Director Shauna Hicks reported her budget will end the fiscal year with a balance of $130,000. Hicks expects more money to flow from FEMA and USDA. She reported that every student will eat free next school year since the system has a predominance of low-income families. The board approved purchase of nearly 30 items of for food service equipment. Director of Personnel Linda Page said at the meeting Thursday that Hicks had been promoted from supervisor to director.

Waskom introduced the new maintenance supervisor, Ryan Shirley. His report such items as installing playground equipment, replacing water heaters, installing sewer pipes at Goldonna and Fairview, replacing door handles and locks, mowing, paint touch-ups and more.

The board voted to accept the bid of $1.2 million from Tudor Inc. for renovations to Natchitoches Magnet and LP Vaughn Elementary.

The board also approved accepting two grants from the Rapides Foundation for all schools. One is the Healthy Behaviors School District Partnership for $46,300 for healthy behavior and tobacco prevention. The other is renewal of the Youth Volunteer District Grant for $6,700. During his report, Eloi said that summer school was a resounding success with students having access to many programs. Also, Natchitoches Virtual Academy will be available to high school students who can take Advanced Placement (AP) classes to earn college credit.

Local board attorney Joe Stamey hopes to resolve the problems by the end of June concerning a proposed parking lot next to the transportation complex on Parkway Avenue. The problem arose after objections from Parkway residents said it was in violation of a City ordinance.

In other action, the board voted to increase its supplement to the 4-H program by $1,100 annually. The current supplement is $5,000. Board member Reba Phelps asked the board to consider the increase in funding because of the “massive presence” of the award-winning 4-H clubs in the school system.

The board also approved the “sunset” of a policy that allowed employees to wear jeans and scrubs during the pandemic. The dress code that was in place before COVID-19 will be in effect when school starts.

The board also approved adjusting the salary schedule that allows for an $800 annual raise for certified teachers and $400 for other employees.

Two other items of note are that the entire insurance premium for the system will be $625,000; and used LP Vaughn playground was declared surplus and will be for sale to raise money for the school activity fund.