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|School board balks at tapping general fund for Richwood|
The Ouachita Parish School Board did not reach an agreement Tuesday on whether to increase in funding for more classroom space and for a gym at the proposed Richwood Middle School.
The board discussed the matter for two hours during its regular meeting. It also heard from Richwood school officials, parents and students on their needs, but the board deferred action until it looks at all viable options to address the matter.
School board member the Rev. John Russell, who represents the Richwood area, requested the board take $3 million from its general fund to provide for additional classrooms and a gymnasium.
For a "quality middle school" with adequate classrooms for each grade, plus a gym, the cost would be about $13 million, Russell said.
Voters in eastern Ouachita Parish recently approved a $30-million property tax extension to pay for a new Richwood Middle School and a new Sterlington Elementary School, as well as renovation projects at existing east Ouachita schools.
Some members of the school board have suggested the three east Ouachita school districts get $10 million each.
Russell's proposal to use $3 million from the school board's general fund to help supplement the cost of constructing the middle school was met with uneasiness by several other board members.
Susan Spence, who represents District G in eastern Ouachita, suggested the school board look into other options before it starts "delving into the general fund."
District F's Carey Walker added, "All of our schools have needs, but if we start tapping that general fund, when do we close that door?"
Russell said $3 million was just "a drop in the bucket" for the school system.
"We say we are in good financial shape, but there are students who are suffering and they have needs," Russell said.
At the end of the 2006-07 fiscal year, the school board had $21.3 million in its general fund.
Russell turned to Spence and said, "You would raise holy hell if you were going through what we're going through. Three million will not break the school system … it will actually enhance the system."
He said under his proposal, schools in Spence's and Walker's districts would still get their $10 million from the $30 million bond issue.
"I'm not trying to compete against the other districts, but the needs are there, and the board is financially able to supplement this $3 million," Russell said.
School board members were shown pictures of the current conditions at the existing Richwood Junior High School. They saw children crossing long distances in the rain to get to classes in outside T-buildings, lines of children waiting to use the bathroom since the school has limited restroom facilities, and a crowded hallway that doesn't provide enough space for children to move about between classes. Some parents gasped as they saw pictures of small junior high children intermingling with much larger high school students during the school day. They heard about how one small junior high school student was turned upside down into a trash can because he accidentally bumped into a high school student in the locker rooms where junior high and high school students share space.
"We are not here for luxuries," said Richwood Junior High principal Tereatha Chisley. "We just want a good school with a gym."
Richwood High School principal Anthony Killian said, "What good is having X amount of dollars in the general fund when you don't put it to good use. I didn't come to Richwood to fail. Mrs. Chisley didn't come to Richwood to fail. You all need to come down and see the good things that are happening in our schools. There's learning going on down there, and that has always been the No. 1 objective."
Richwood coach Judy Dixon said if the school board approves the construction of the new middle school without a gym, then it would be the only middle school in Ouachita Parish without one.
Richwood Junior High currently has 350 students.
One of those is seventh-grader Diarra Bryant. He pleaded with the school board to provide his fellow students with a proper school.
"Don't give us something that's incomplete," Bryant said. "What we want is our own library, our own gym with locker rooms and our own cafeteria. We want nice hallways and classrooms with plenty of space. Is this too much to ask?"
Diarra's mother, Lee, said she never thought twice about sending her son to Richwood Junior High.
"But then I walked the hallways, and I became a bit bitter," Lee Bryant said. "I don't like the fact that children have to share our school with high schoolers. I am concerned and hurt. You can't walk up and down the halls without bumping into one another. How can I expect my son to come home with A's when he's sitting in a classroom where he can't even move? There are some outstanding students there. Please don't limit them."