Jefferson Parish to catch up on repairs at high schools

The Jefferson Parish school system is getting ready to spend $7.3 million to paint, scrape, seal and repair years of deferred maintenance at a dozen of its high schools over the next two years.

Gymnasium floors will be sanded down and resealed, and auditoriums will be refurbished.

For the 2,000 students at John Ehret High School in Marrero, the project means they will be able to use the campus’ covered walkways without wearing their raincoats.

“When it rains, you’d just as soon stand out in it,” Charlie Ochello, one of the system’s project managers, said Friday afternoon as he pointed out some of the countless holes in the walkways’ rusted steel canopy. “We’re trying to keep the rain off the kids.”

The Jefferson Parish School Board’s Facilities Committee is recommending the board approve the work, $3.9 million of which is slated to be done this coming school year and $3.4 million in the 2015-16 school year.

Superintendent James Meza said he expects the board to approve the work when it meets Wednesday because every member but one was at last week’s committee meeting and no one voiced any objections to how the funds are to be allocated.

“Our schools were deteriorating very rapidly and we were very concerned about that,” he said. “We certainly didn’t want (the buildings) to be a risk for students.”

Every high school but one is getting some level of attention. Meza said the projects were chosen according to the severity of the problem and which work would prevent future costs from escalating, among other criteria.

Bonnabel, John Ehret and Higgins are each getting more than $1 million in repairs, with East and West Jefferson each getting about $850,000 worth of work.

Meza said the gym floor at Haynes Academy in Metairie is buckling due to water seepage, and the auditorium at West Jefferson, which was never repaired after Hurricane Katrina, had 3 inches of water in it after a heavy rain last week.

“It’s glaring,” Meza said of the maintenance needs. “It’s not subtle. It’s very clear that this is long overdue, and that’s the message I got when I visited some of the campuses: We’ve got to do something about this immediately.”

Meza said he and the School Board made catching up on deferred maintenance a priority last year, when he began reducing the administrative staff through attrition and cutting down on spending at the central office. That effort, along with higher-than-expected sales tax revenue, freed up an extra $4 million to add to the budget for deferred maintenance.

“Year-round, my strategy was to be very prudent in how we would spend money outside of the classroom,” he said.

At John Ehret, the work will include painting and sealing the joints on all 20 of the 40-year-old school’s buildings, which now leak when it rains.

“We chase it constantly,” Ochello said of the invading rainwater.

In the gym, the Granwood floor that now bears discolored patches caused by overhead leaks and a dripping air-conditioner vent will be sanded and refinished, and the ceiling will be scraped, patched and painted.

“Our basketball coach will be so happy,” Principal Maria Landry said.

The system’s 13 high schools average 47 years of age, and they include 869 classrooms in 155 buildings totaling 2 million square feet.

Meza said falling behind on upkeep and repair is not a problem specific to Jefferson Parish. As much as 80 percent of a public school system’s budget is in teacher salaries, and that money can’t be touched without directly injuring its core mission. Add in obligations to the retirement system, and there aren’t many places to find extra money when it’s needed.

Meza, who was at the University of New Orleans before taking over the Jefferson Parish system, said the problem exists at every level.

“At UNO, every year when we had to look for money, guess where we took it from: deferred maintenance,” he said.

Meza said he doesn’t see much chance of increasing revenue in the near future. “I don’t think the climate is favorable for new taxes,” he said.

He said the work, some of which can begin immediately while other jobs will need to be bid out, will go a long way toward getting the system’s worst problems taken care of.

At John Ehret, it’s welcome news to Principal Landry.

She said falling behind on repairs doesn’t just hurt the public school system’s ability to compete with private schools in the minds of parents. It also contradicts the message schools are trying to teach children about the importance of taking responsibility for themselves.

“And it’s telling the child that they are not worthy of quality facilities,” she said.

“It’s a subtle message,” Ochello agreed.