Livingston Parish continues Hurricane Ida response

A woman walks in front of Albany Upper Elementary following Hurricane Ida on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

Even Dr. Devin Gregoire, who has deep roots in the Albany community, doesn’t know exactly how old Albany Upper Elementary is.

He’s seen documents of remodeling plans that are dated in 1912, but some of the older folks in the community recall their grandparents telling them the school’s construction is closer to the start of the 20th century.

“We don’t know with certainty how old the building is, but it’s well over 100 years old,” said Gregoire, who represents Albany on the Livingston Parish School Board, in an interview with The News back in August. “We do our best to keep it up, but again, it’s a 100-year-old building.”

With the Albany area experiencing heavy growth in the last several years, Gregoire is leading an effort to build a new elementary school to alleviate the congestion currently felt at the Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Middle School.

The new configuration, however, is contingent on residents passing a half-cent sales tax and a proposed millage, items that were supposed to be on the November ballot.

But because many are still recovering from Hurricane Ida, which ravaged the area in late August, the vote to fund construction of a new school is officially being pushed back to next year, Gregoire said.

“Due to the financial burden that everybody is under because of recovery efforts from Hurricane Ida, the election for a sales tax and millage to build a new school in Albany is going to be postponed,” Gregoire told The News. “It’s going to be pushed back to April to give people time to recover.”

Before Hurricane Ida hit overnight Aug. 29, all was in place for Gregoire’s proposition to go before voters in November. And over the summer, the School Board completed the purchase of a 19.5-acre plot located on Farkas Lane just off Highway 43, which is where the new school would be built.

But then Hurricane Ida struck and moved directly through Livingston Parish, with many officials calling it “the worst storm” to hit the parish since the Great Flood of 2016.

Though an executive order from Gov. John Bel Edwards pushed back all fall elections by a month as the state recovers from the storm, Gregoire felt his constituents needed more time.

“We still have substantial damage in the area,” Gregoire said. “There’s infrastructure damage all across our side of the parish, people still don’t have cable or internet, and they’re still trying to get trees out of the yard. So there’s still substantial damage, and a lot of people haven’t gotten responses from FEMA yet. So that all plays into [postponing the vote].”

“The only reason to push it back this far is to give people a chance to recover and catch their breath before we start asking for an increase in taxes,” he said later.

Earlier this year, Gregoire described the plan for a new school as a “preemptive measure,” but one that will ultimately be necessary as growth continues in the area.

“Albany is growing fast,” Gregoire said at the time. “We have upwards of 300 new housing units coming into the Albany school district in the next two-to-three years. And with that influx of students, we’re not going to have room for them.”

To gage the public’s interest, Gregoire said he has taken “straw polls” from residents regarding the proposed increase in taxes. Though he acknowledged that “nobody likes taxes,” he said nearly everyone is “interested in helping our schools.”

“A tax is hard to pass in any environment, but everybody sees the necessity,” Gregoire said.

Currently, Albany Lower and Albany Upper are located next to each other off Highway 43, roughly a half-mile south of Highway 190. Together, those two schools have around 900 students up to 4th grade, with grades 5-8 currently at the middle school.

Under Gregoire’s format, Albany Upper would move 1.5 miles north to the new land on Farkas Lane and house students in grades 3-5. That would free up classroom space at Albany Lower and nearby Albany Middle, which would then house grades 6-8.

“What would happen is the fifth grade would come out of middle school and go to this new Upper Elementary,” Gregoire explained. “So the Middle School would get an entire wing of classroom spaces back [for grades 6-8].

“The Lower Elementary would then get its pick of the mill of Upper Elementary’s existing campus. So the 20-something classrooms that the Upper Elementary has right now, the Lower Elementary would get. So it would have plenty of room to expand.”

Gregoire has also said a new school would solve other issues under the current configuration, such as lunch.

“We have over 900 kids in the elementary schools, so we’re feeding from both Lower and Upper elementary in that cafeteria starting at 10 a.m. through 1 p.m.,” Gregoire said. “This would help that.”

Though Gregoire firmly believes the Albany district “desperately needs” a new school, he acknowledged that postponing the vote to fund one in the wake of Hurricane Ida “was the right thing to do.”

He plans to hold public meetings in the future “to answer any questions and explain anything that needs to be explained” regarding the need for a new school.

“Right now, our kids are in a school house that’s over 100 years old,” he said. “We want to build a school that has up-to-date infrastructure, classroom dynamics, and technology so our kids have a jump start.”

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