More options thrown into hat for Harper school

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More options have been thrown into the ring as to what to do about the issues plaguing J.E. Harper Elementary.

However, it still boils down to two things – what to do with the children during construction and money. If Webster Parish voters passed a new ad valorem tax to build a new school or any of the other options that have been discussed, state money used to pay teacher salaries and benefits would decrease.

Business and Finance Director Crevonne Odom explained during a special meeting at the school Wednesday that roughly 90 percent of the board’s total budget goes to salaries and benefits for all school employees. That includes salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits. The problem is the state keeps burdening school systems with more and more by raising costs each year, she says.

“You kind of get penalized for having the initiative to do a sales tax,” she said. “A poorer district that does not have a good sales tax base or property tax base, they don’t have that money to add to salaries or to bonds for schools. MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) calculations give them more money than they would give us. It’s going to have to be balance. You have to find that balance.”

The idea of building a new school was thrown out as an option by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dan Rawls. Before the meeting, he handed out a plat sheet showing the property owned by the school board at the Harper site. On that plat, some 30 acres of land behind the school is unused. If a new school was built, though, the new one would be on the service road next to interstate.

Board member Frankie Mitchell made a plea to the public, asking for their ideas, but she made it clear that she wanted the public to be a part of the decision.

“We’re trying,” she said. “We’ve made some mistakes, but if you have any ideas that you want to share with us that we can see that we can make Webster Parish a better system, we want to listen to you too. Maybe we don’t know all the answers, and we don’t. We’re looking at dollar bills and actually being almost broken because of demands placed on (the) Webster Parish School Board in terms of insurance, in terms of everything that’s mandated but not funded.”

Just about the time the meeting hit a stalemate, Nelia Ferguson, a teacher at E.S. Richardson Elementary School, threw out the idea of putting the kindergarten and first grade students at J.A. Phillips Middle School and moving sixth graders to either Webster Junior High School or to the Harper site.

“You would have the option to have about 20 classrooms,” Ferguson said. “The bathrooms are up to date. It already has a wheelchair lift, because you have to accommodate special needs children. You have a gym for holding little people. Everything is just so smooth. It’s a lovely campus.”

Ferguson says the site is better idea for little ones and it still meets the regulations for children so young. She explained many of the classrooms have more than one exit and the building is broken into quads with a certain number of classrooms in each quad. With the space the school has, she says more classroom space could be added if needed.

It also puts the kindergarten and first grade students with the pre-K students.

No matter what grade would end up at Harper, the issues remain the same – restroom facilities are inadequate with too few to handle the number of children at the school each day and other logistics.

Technology needs are another issue. Phillips is equipped with the technology to meet the needs of the sixth grade class, but Harper is not. Richardson’s technology needs are also further along than Harper’s, Rawls says.

Some of the other ideas discussed have been renovating the old technical school and housing the kindergarten and first grade students there until Harper can be renovated. Another idea was to switch the fourth and fifth grade students and the Harper students. It would correct issues with the fire marshal, but it would put the Richardson students in the same situation facing the Harper students now, Rawls says.

Another idea was to disburse the students among the other schools until Harper can be renovated.

Mitchell says a decision will not happen overnight. It will take the community and the board working together to find the best possible solution.

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