A five-hour marathon workshop Monday followed by a special meeting, in which many thought the Lafayette Parish School Board would vote on purchasing the abandoned Super Kmart on Ambassador Caffery for a new high school, turned into an effort to save N.P. Moss Middle from a state takeover and ended in a surprise 7-1 vote to instead install the new high school at Moss. School board member Shelton Cobb was the lone vote against shuttering Moss and turning the middle school into the Thibodaux Career and Technical High School; board President Carl Lacombe was absent for what was likely one of the most important meetings of his two decades on the LPSB.

The handwriting was on the wall throughout much of the night, as it became crystal clear the board had not properly planned for the financial strain of the comprehensive Thibodaux and Career and Technical High School at the old Kmart site, a more than $50 million initial investment that didn’t include buildout of the athletic complex the board insists needs to be part of the school, nor did it include staffing and other operational costs. (For more on the Kmart plan, read The Independent Weekly's Nov. 10 analysis, "Board Games.") The school board and system had no plan for how it would meet the annual multi-million-dollar debt obligation, other than to, as Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry pointed out, cut expenses. None of those expenses were identified.

N.P. Moss, on the other hand, will cost about $23 million, which does include the athletic complex and operating costs. Board members Cobb and Ed Sam, along with community leaders and parents, pleaded with the board to give the Moss community time to have a voice in the matter, but the board rejected the request. This year Moss entered its third year of academically unacceptable status; improving its scores to a level that would prevent a state takeover next year is statistically impossible, Academic Accountability Officer Tom Spencer told the board.

The system’s administration and board members argued against turning this community asset over to the state (Moss opened in 1999 and the system is still paying for it) and said such action would be an embarrassment, but board member-elect Tehmi Chassion countered that the situation is already humiliating. “Is the state taking over a bad thing?” Chassion asked. “[Because] the current situation has been an embarrassment for a very, very long time.”

And while school board members tried to make the case that the state has a poor track record of improving failing schools, Spencer acknowledged that half of the New Orleans schools taken over by the state are doing "substantially better."

In order to put Moss back into contention, the board had to rescind its March vote to keep Moss as a middle school. The board voted unanimously to rescind the action, and when board member Hunter Beasley asked for a substitute motion to defer voting on Moss as the site for the new high school until Wednesday’s regular meeting, it died in a 4-4 tie with Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Rae Trahan and Mark Cockerham voting against it. The board then threw its support 7-1 to Moss.

Superintendent Burnell Lemoine said efforts will be made to keep the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy and the International Baccalaureate Academy students at Moss, both of which could feed into the new high school, on a permanent basis. The upstart Thibodaux Career and Technical High School, housed temporarily at the Acadiana Technical College’s campus, has 49 students. N.P. Moss has about 300, though the campus has the capacity to serve 1,000. It has been losing students to other schools because of its poor academic status.

At Monday's meeting the board also approved the $1.1 billion facilities master plan; options for funding the plan will be discussed at a later date. The plan took a year to develop and cost $900,000.

At its Wednesday meeting, the board is likely to face a barrage of criticism from Moss stakeholders, who in March made a strong case for keeping their community school and working hard to continue its academic improvement.

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