Much of what the public has heard recently about the Livingston Parish School System sends decidedly negative signals: budget shortfalls, salary freezes and dire warnings of potential layoffs.
But that’s not the complete picture. Walk into one of the system’s newest facilities, for example, and there’s not even a trace of doom-and-gloom in the air.
Allison Raborn is the principal at South Fork Elementary, which opened last fall. A visit to the school late last month as preparations were underway for the 2011-2012 academic year revealed a surprisingly upbeat mood.
“We’re excited about the new year to come and all the great things we’ll accomplish with our students,” Raborn said with a smile as she escorted a visitor around the campus.
In stark contrast to the grim portrayal on the evening news, South Fork was abuzz with positive energy as teachers and staff worked on last-minute details to get everything in place in time for the opening bell.
While the School Board and administrators battle through budgetary concerns, the South Fork staff members were focused on their jobs of creating the most effective learning environment possible for the children. Teachers were receiving training on their new smart boards and Raborn was waiting to receive supplies, including computers for the new computer lab. A freshly-painted mural depicting the school’s Bronco mascot in a bucolic setting livened up the library along with brightly colored book shelves.
The school, located off Hwy. 449 south of Walker, is the newest elementary school to come on line in the system. The $7.5 million facility opened last November, relieving overcrowding by taking in 300 pre-K to fifth-grade students drawn from South Walker Elementary and Gray’s Creek Elementary.
Making the transition in the middle of the last school year wasn’t easy, Raborn said, but now the staff has settled in to their new digs.
“It was hard on everybody, but everyone – the administration, the staff, the children, the parents - pulled together to make it happen,” she said.
Also pulling together with the school staff and the central office to facilitate the process was DEMCO representative Cheryl Malbrough and the Economic Development Department at DEMCO. The locally-owned electric cooperative is the preferred power provider for many schools not only in Livingston Parish but throughout its seven-parish service area.
Malbrough said she’s happy to work with local schools to fulfill their electrical power needs and accommodate the rapid growth that’s occurring in both Livingston and Ascension parishes. She said a mutually beneficial working relationship with the schools is important in part because of the fact that DEMCO is a locally-owned, locally-controlled organization and also because of the ability to offer the lowest rates in the region.
According to figures recently released by the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Malbrough pointed out, DEMCO’s rates for electrical power are $20 lower per 1,000 kilowatt hours compared to Entergy and nearly $30 lower than Cleco.
“We always strive to deliver safe, reliable power to all of our consumers, but we’re especially proud that we can provide affordable power for our school system during this time when there’s a lot of belt-tightening. Over time, that monthly savings really adds up for all of us who pay taxes,” she said, adding that DEMCO’s support of local education also includes other programs such as scholarships, safety demonstrations for students and the annual Washington, D.C., Youth Tour Essay Contest.
For its part, South Fork has 28 classrooms, including the computer lab and special education space, a large cafeteria, library and administrative space and is designed to be expanded with a 12-classroom wing and multi-purpose/recreational facility add-on.
Raborn, for one, said she feels confident about the system overall and trusts that elected officials and the administration will be able to handle any budgetary problems for the good of the students. It hasn’t been easy.
Facing what was described last spring as a “financial emergency” and staring at a potential layoff of up to 70 teachers, the School Board was able to avoid those layoffs by voting instead to freeze all district salaries and eliminate three work days for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Officials said the measures would save roughly $3.7 million during the next year and would have no effect on the students’ amount of time in their classrooms.
The steps were necessary, officials said, to offset a budget imbalance caused by the end of federal stimulus funds, increases in teacher retirement contributions, the continuing influx of new students and the removal of the 2.75 percent “growth factor” increases in the Minimum Foundation Program, the state’s main education funding vehicle.
But South Fork Assistant Principal Misti Thomason said she and others charged with the day-to-day responsibilities of educating children are staying upbeat and turning their attention to all the good things going on in education throughout the parish including the addition of new schools such as Juban Parc Elementary and the new Live Oak High School under construction in Watson.
She points to not only the new facilities but the outstanding performance of the teachers and students throughout the parish. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, Livingston Parish Public School students rank among the state’s highest academic achievers.
Taking into account the scores on the 2011 LEAP, iLEAP and GEE tests, Livingston Parish ranks fourth in the highest percentage of students performing at grade level or above. A recent report indicated nearly 80 percent of all the 24,000 students in the system scored “Basic” or better on this year’s accountability exams, trailing only three other systems.
DEMCO CEO/General Manager John Vranic said DEMCO is proud to be a partner in public education and looks forward to fulfilling its responsibilities as a locally-owned organization.
“We have an obligation to do whatever we can to improve the quality of life for the families, businesses and communities we serve,” Vranic said. “We strive not only to deliver the most affordable power possible, but as a locally-owned cooperative we also have a vested interest in making our community an outstanding place to live, work and learn.”