Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Part one of a two part series
Natchitoches Parish School Board met May 16 in a special called meeting to decide the future of the Cloutierville School Building. By the time they adjourned, they had voted to declare the building surplus, reject a cash offer, abate and demolish most of the structures and award a contract for the project in a whirlwind of motions aimed at addressing the district’s liability for asbestos within the building.
At issue was whether the Board would incur additional liability for asbestos exposure by selling the building. Finance Director Lee Waskom and Superintendent Dr. Grant Eloi advised board members of their options based on a letter issued to the Board by attorney Evan M. Alvarez hours before the meeting. Waskom and Eloi also relied on prior conversations with attorney John Guice and Altec asbestos project manager John Holcomb to present their position.
Presenting an alternative proposal was Cloutierville resident Lauri Mathes, who wished to renovate the facilities into a mixed-use childcare and community center.
The board began with a unanimous vote to declare the building surplus. The Board then proceeded to discuss Alvarez’s letter regarding its legal options to proceed.
The letter stated the building could not be sold until an appraisal was performed to assess its market value. Selling the property below its appraised value would violate a provision of the state constitution prohibiting donations of public property.
No appraisal has been performed, and the board anticipated it would take months to schedule one. Eloi stated, “Appraisal is only necessary if we move forward with (a) sale.” The lack of an appraisal led the Board to vote unanimously to reject Mathes’ proposal, a decision which should have been final, yet they continued to address her with questions.
The letter also advised the Board of its liability arising from asbestos in the building. It read in part, “Although school boards routinely sell unneeded properties containing asbestos and other hazardous materials ‘as-is’, arguments can be made that the sellers of such buildings remain liable for any injuries later sustained by others due to the presence of the hazardous substances in the buildings.”
The letter presented Board members with a choice, “The School Board will need to determine whether to first remove the asbestos from the buildings and then sell the property, or simply sell the property “as-is” with the presence of asbestos being disclosed.”
“The liability will endure with us no matter if we sell it or not,” Eloi explained before justifying abatement. “The abatement would help you greatly in legal proceedings, but (Guice) basically said it doesn’t give you a free bill of health.” He then stated his position. “The staff’s recommendation is to demolish.”
Board Member Tan’Keia Palmer expressed a desire to help Cloutierville residents. “I would love to see the building given to the community,” she said. “But somebody gets sick or something, they still can come back to us for liability.”
“They can do that at this point because it’s been there for four years in this condition,” Mathes warned.
Asbestos exposure typically results in a diagnosis of mesothelioma decades later, and the district will continue to face liability from the period when the building wasn’t secured.
The Board questioned Mathes’ ability to follow through on her plans if she were to purchase the building in a bidding process. Mathes indicated she would seek grants as suggested by board member Steven Harris, but could pay for abatement herself if required. “It’s $100,000 to get it abated. That’s your numbers. Yes, we have $100,000. You saw that in our report,” she said.
Waskom asked about other expenses the rehabilitation would incur, pointing to the lack of wiring in the building.
Mathes displayed irritation. “You made it very clear to me in your office that you did us a favor by having the copper removed,” she said. “You also got the pavilion taken down. That is very clear to us too. I’m very aware of where you stand on this Mr. Waskom.”
Mathes revealed her family’s experience with abatement. “My husband has had several projects where they have abated asbestos. (He’s) used companies that seal it, that take it out, that dispose of it, so I’m confident,” she said. She questioned whether the damage abatement might cause to the building was exaggerated. “I would definitely like to get a second opinion of if the whole second floor would have to be torn off.”
Mathes appealed to the Board. “We have a vision for this building,” she said. “A whole city could be sparked by this. To tear it down, it’s an atrocity.”
Waskom reminded board members of the abatement and demolition bid’s impending 30 day expiration on May 19. “It’s good until the 19th of this month,” he said. “They will be increasing their prices after this.”
Board member Dorothy McGaskey motioned to table the decision to demolish the school, providing the board more time to investigate their concerns about abatement and liability. “I feel like we should exhaust all (alternatives),” she said. Her motion was seconded and brought to a vote, but failed in a five to five split.
The board realized they had not introduced a motion to demolish the school. Harris motioned to discuss demolition, and Palmer seconded before requesting a reprieve for the school. “Can we maybe table this?” She asked. “To get a lawyer here to tell us some things they told y’all (Eloi and Waskom) in the back room so we can understand too and our public can hear this,” she said. “We want to be transparent about what is going on with this property.”
“I think the only reason (the lawyers are) not here today is because of the quick turnaround.” Eloi said. “If they would have had advance notice they would have made themselves available.” His remark reflects the pace at which the Board called the May 16 meeting after failing to resolve Cloutierville school’s status during its previous meeting. Search engine results suggest notice of the May 16 meeting was not published until earlier the same day, which would be out of compliance with a state law requiring public bodies provide written public notice no later than 24 hours beforehand.
Discussion turned to preserving the outlying buildings, and board member Eugean Garner made a suggestion. “I’ve been thinking about the Ashland School,” he said. “They did choose to go and tear their old buildings down, but left the gym there.” Garner offered it as an example. “They’ve done come back and built an outside stage, public restrooms, everything,” He suggested sparing the Cloutierville school’s gym and offering to sell it and the outlying buildings to the community. ”Let them work on getting grants, and I know they can get those funded through LGAP just like Ashland,” he said.
Harris amended his motion to exclude the gym and external buildings from demolition after abating everything. The board asked Waskom to review which parts of the building contained asbestos. Waskom revealed that the gym’s roof might suffer damage during the abatement process, but that it could be sealed with tarp until a buyer could be found for the undemolished structures.
Board President Reba Phelps questioned whether preserving the gym would be a viable option. “This is an investment property for us, so if we’re abating certain parts of it just to sell it, I don’t know that that’s a good investment,” she said. “Why would we want to sell it if it’s a viable location for something we could use it for?”
Board member Rhonda Guidroz asked if other parts of the building could be salvaged if they were found to be free from asbestos. Harris responded by indicating other portions of the building could be evaluated following the abatement step of the process.
Harris’s motion to abate the school and demolish everything except for the gym and outlying buildings passed with board members Emile Metoyer, Billy Benefield, Garner and Guidroz voting no. In spite of passing, it is unclear whether the vote is valid because the motion was not added to the board’s agenda with unanimous approval in accordance with Louisiana law, statute R.S. 42:19(A)(1)(cc)
The Board then voted unanimously to add the bid award to the agenda and board member Beverly Broadway introduced the motion to award the bid to the lowest bidder, Bayou Rapides Construction, LLC. in the amount of $374,965.
Palmer seconded before asking about the effect of preserving some structures on the bid. “You’re going to go back and tell (the demolition contractors) what we want and see if they will still pursue?” she asked. “Wouldn’t the price go down though?”
“Perhaps,” said Waskom. “We’ll just have to see.” He stated he would prepare a negative change order but pointed to cutting the slab and sealing the remaining portion of the gym as outside the original scope of work. The motion passed with only Metoyer voting no.
The next agenda item regarded sending a letter to tax assessor Tim Page communicating millages. The changes recommended to the board were to reduce the bond millage in District Seven from 11.5 to 8, District Eight from 33 to 26 and District Nine from 8 to 6.9. Waskom indicated the changes were necessary to align millage revenues with bond requirements. The motion was introduced and passed unanimously.
Nathan Wilson | Reporter