Mulberry expansion on hold until study’s completion

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The Terrebonne Parish School Board shot down a proposal to potentially purchase a lot of land adjacent to Mulberry Elementary School pending a district-wide study.

The study, approved by the school board by a 7-2 vote, will fund a district-wide infrastructure, demographic and facility analysis projecting short-term (defined as five years) and long term (defined as 10 to 20 years) needs, prioritize the needs and establish a budget of no greater than $75,000 to solve the needs.

A task force made up of members of the public will be formed to assess the data, and the contractor who does the study will be precluded on bidding on any project that results from the study’s recommendations.

“It’s important to have an independent contractor provide the study, because we have a responsibility to the public to keep everything transparent that we need to make sure that whoever the awarded contractor is on the study is not the person that actually does the work,” explained District 4 board member Debi Benoit. “It would be two separate items. The independence is important, and I think it shows the public that we are doing due diligence with the money that the taxpayers have given us.”

District 7 board member Roger Dale DeHart, one of two school board members to vote against the proposal along with District 8 board member Donald Duplantis, said reaching out 10 to 20 years on a study is too far out, citing the last similar district-wide conducted in 2003 being out of date.

Benoit attributed the study being obsolete to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve had a lot of movement in the parish since then, and so this study is going to tell us a lot of details that we don’t know at this point,” she said.

Terrebonne Parish Superintendent of Schools Philip Martin said the study will take about six months once it is awarded, and he said it’s funding will not require any additional taxes.

“I’m going to need some input down the road,” said the superintendent, who oversees a district where the average school age is about 60 years old. “ … In my mind, some buildings just aren’t worth investing a whole lot of money in, but that’s just in my mind. It’s like you have a car with 300,000 miles on it, you may not want to put a whole bunch of money in that car, so I’m thinking along those lines too.”

Immediately prior to the board approving the study, it failed to pass a recommendation which would allow Martin and his staff to negotiate with a property owner looking to sell his more than four acre property adjacent to Mulberry Elementary.

Terrebonne Parish District 7 Councilman Danny Babin said many residents living near the school have complained of vehicles blocking driveways on Cougar Drive as well as many cases of speeding and running stop signs in the neighborhood.

Additionally, DeHart said he’s received reports of parents and children walking hand-in-hand almost getting run over by a parent dropping off or picking up kids in front of Mulberry.

“Everybody is in a hurry,” DeHart said. “The first thing that came to my mind is I don’t want to get a child run over anywhere if there is something we can do. That small piece of property, we could add just a little portion of it to the driveway we have now. That would be a safer environment for those kids to be dropped off each and every day.”

Board members also speculated that the land could be used to provide additional classrooms for a school that was built for 450 students but currently hosts over 1,000, however no specific plan was laid out in the proposal.

“We have a problem. You don’t need a plan to recognize a problem of overpopulation. We’ve been talking about it for years,” said District 6 School Board member L.P. Bordelon.

The board, however, shot down the proposal by a 5-4 vote. Benoit, District 1 board member and board president Roosevelt Thomas, District 2 board member Gregory Harding, District 5 board member and board vice-president Dr. Brenda Leroux Babin and District 9 board member Vicki Bonvillain voted against it, while Bordelon, DeHart, Duplantis and District 3 board member Richard Jackson voted for it.

“I believe that we are premature in talking about or voting on any decisions about Mulberry’s facilities until we have had this comprehensive plan for infrastructure and demographics and facilities,” said Benoit. “Let’s let the data enlighten us as to what the needs should be and if the emphasis should be on Mulberry. There are things that we don’t know. Is Mulberry underneath the flood plane? Do we need to elevate that school? I think this study will help us determine, and I don’t think we should reach a verdict until we get the professional evidence the study is going to give us.”

When asked if he had the sense the land would be sold immediately, placing a sense of urgency on its purchase, Martin responded, “Not to my knowledge, no.”

Mullberry Elementary students play in the school’s playground during recess. It’s a well-deserved break after the school grew 5.7 progress points last year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, despite already being an ‘A’ school.