Community members from John F. Kennedy and T.H. Watkins Elementary Schools gathered for an informational meeting on Wednesday regarding a school reconfiguration plan scheduled to appear on next Tuesday's Calcasieu Parish School Board budget committee meeting. Plans for the two schools include instructing all kindergarten through fifth grade students from both campuses at Watkins and instructing Head Start and pre-k students at Kennedy.

"It's an opportunity to keep both buildings open and have a community school in both areas," Karl Bruchhaus, superintendent, said.

Benefits to the reconfiguration at Watkins include additional class sections for greater teacher collaboration and a centralized site for Marcus Jackson, R3 zone director, to work with staff. Early childhood students at Kennedy would likewise benefit from having all resources in a centralized location including socioeconomic and emotional support, nursing and medical care.

Dwindling populations at both schools is also a motivating factor for the plans, he said. "By putting together, we end up with 302 students next year at Watkins. A pretty decent sized school."

The move also "benefits the district financially," he added, as Watkins would be funded by the general fund and Kennedy's early childhood center would be grant funded.

Audience member reactions were generally negative towards the reconfiguration plans with raised voices, clapping and even tears being expressed during the community feedback portions. Concerns included transportation, added emotional instability for students, lacking district support in the form of staff and funding and a troubling trend in the closing of predominantly African American campuses.

"We need leaders in and over our schools who understand black culture, black schools and black students," Elaweena G. Woods a former educator and CPSB principal, said. "Closing schools does not enhance education. All it does is remove some of the failing letter grades to make it look like all students are learning."

Desmond Wallace, district 14, outlined an alternate plan which, if approved, would include both schools remaining pre-k through fifth grade campuses and the re-zoning of the area drawing in more students from Southeast Calcasieu.

"If the issue with J.F. Kennedy for a number of years has been student enrollment, low student enrollment, I believe we can address that issue by taking advantage of all the growth taking place in Southeast Lake Charles," he said. Wallace has formal, proposed plans posted on his Facebook page and Bruchhaus said they will also be posted online in the upcoming board meeting agenda.

During audience voicings a number of community members criticized Bruchhaus for the development and notification of the plan. Bruchhaus stated that plans to present the reconfiguration were originally scheduled for March but coronavirus closures forced the district to delay talks.

Employees, however, were notified prior to the public out of fairness, he said. "We didn't feel like it was fair to wait until June to tell them they might be moving or looking for a different job."

He reminded the audience that the final decision does not rest with his position as superintendent. "I made the recommendation. I own that. But ultimately I don't get to make that decision myself."

Board members Mack Dellafosse, district seven, Fred Hardy, district two, and Glenda Gay, district three, were also present at the meeting. "Whatever happens next Tuesday, 15 people will be voting on that," Gay said.

"You need to reach out to those other 11 board members…You have shared some valuable and invaluable concerns, but it needs to reach everyone," she said.

A similar meeting, open to the public, regarding possible a reconfiguration of Combre-Fondel and J.D. Clifton Elementary Schools will be held Thursday, at 5 p.m. on the Combre-Fondel pavilion. Both proposals will go before the CPSB budget committee next Tuesday, May 26.

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