West bank Early Childhood Education interim facility to open in January

Timeline for Early Childhood Education facilities construction (interim and permanent)

The Finance Committee of Ascension’s Parish Council recently recommended approval of five items in furtherance of an Early Childhood Education program to be housed, ultimately, at the Hickley M. Waguespack Center in Donaldsonville.  The WAG Center, named for a former sheriff, was established by APSO in 2016 on the former grounds of West Ascension Elementary School which was demolished to clear the way. With a construction completion date anticipated for early 2025, Finance recommended funding the program on an interim basis utilizing Donaldsonville’s historic B. Lemann Building.

The pertinent agenda items:

e. Presentation of Conceptual Plan for Early Childhood Education Implementation (John Diez, CAO and Bill Dawson, Project Manager)
f. Consideration of Sub-lease Agreement with Donaldsonville Developments, LLC (B. Lemann Building) (John Diez, CAO and Bill Dawson, Project Manager)
g. Advice of Agreements under $50,000 with MultiStudio (Architects) and Nicholls State University for Early Childhood Education Implementation (John Diez, CAO and Bill Dawson, Project Manager)
h. Approval of Amendment #1 to Master Contract for Professional Services between Ascension Parish Government and ResourceFull Consulting, LLC for the Early Childhood Development Program, for an increase in contract amount of $750.00 to cover additional “out-of-pocket” expenses (John Diez, CAO)
i. Approval of Renewal of Participation Agreement with St. Bernard Parish Sheriff for the housing of juveniles at the Detention Center located in St. Bernard Parish. Amount based on fee schedule (John Diez, CAO)

Ascension Parish Library is another participating entity.  Conspicuous by its omission, Ascension Parish Public Schools was not included and never mentioned.

$400,000 per year in operating costs, $150,000 in capital improvements will be drawn from the $8.6 million parked in the recently created Juvenile Justice Fund.  That fund balance is a product of eight years worth of tax collection pursuant to a one-mill parish-wide tax approved by the Parish Council on October 17, 2013.  The operative ordinance dedicates the approximately $1.5 million generated annually…

“To fund Participation Agreement(s) for the care and maintenance of juveniles awaiting prosecution for crimes committed in Ascension Parish, and subsequently to acquire, construct, equip, maintain, and operate a juvenile detention facility in Ascension Parish.”  (20 years in duration, the tax is set to expire on December 31, 2032).

With no plans to build such a facility, and none being discussed, the Early Childhood Education Center received universal approbation.  And why wouldn’t it, being for the kids and all.

Predicated upon The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, Ascension CAO John Diez provided a series of stats to support “well-documented upside of early childhood education.”  For instance, children with access to Early Childhood Education are 5x less likely to be incarcerated.

“A tremendous amount of money we spend every year trying to punish kids that are in (the Juvenile Justice System).  “The best thing that we can do is not need these juvenile facilities,” averred Project Manager Bill Dawson.

CAO Diez deemed the facilities “prisons for kids” in a rhetorical flourish not without some saliency, though there is another side to the argument.  Earlier this week it was announced that the infamous Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, closed eight years ago after being deemed “obsolete, unsafe and costly,” is going to be partially reopened.  25 suspected juvenile offenders will be transferred to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola until repairs to Jetson are completed.

Sheriff Bobby Webre touched upon recent violent incidents by Louisiana juveniles housed in Alabama, resulting in their return.  A group of juveniles attempted a takeover of Jefferson Parish’s Bridge City Center for Youth, followed by another group’s escape and mini-crime spree prior to recapture.

Ascension Parish is not immune to juvenile crime, sometimes violent.

“I have to worry about juvenile justice.  So I have to make sure that we have the funds to place juveniles in a detention center when they need to be there.  That’s the last thing we want to do,” lamented Sheriff Webre somberly.

It is the stark reality.

NOTE:  Finance also approved an updated Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with St. Bernard Parish to provide beds for Ascension juveniles charged criminally.  The cost is $250 per day, per juvenile detainee.  The Finance Department assured that sufficient funding would remain in the Juvenile Justice Fund to pay that rising cost in reply to Councilwoman Teri Casso.  Casso conditioned her support on future implementation of an Early Childhood Education program located on Ascension’s east bank (President Clint Cointment confirmed those plans).

APSO undertook numerous Community Outreach initiatives centered on the Wag Center beginning in 2016.  Ascension Parish Government, beginning with President Clint Cointment’s administration, and a supportive Parish Council have joined forces with APSO to “do something on the front end.”  Led by CAO Diez and Bill Dawson, they are unwilling to wait for the permanent facility’s opening two-and-a-half years from now.

“Instead of waiting two years, probably making mistakes in the design, in addition to leaving 150 kids behind,” Bill Dawson urged approval of an interim program to a receptive Finance Committee.  The interim facility will commence with 72 children aged six months to three-years old.

“It is desperately needed in the City of Donaldsonville,” asserted Mayor Leroy Sullivan noting the city’s higher than average poverty level.  “Starting on a smaller scale (at the B. Lemann Building) is good for all of us to see where we’re going, how we’re going to get there and what’s the best way to do it.”

Mayor Leroy Sullivan

Mayor Sullivan is a member of the Early Childhood Education’s Steering Committee.

“You can’t stress enough the importance of early childhood care and education,” assured former School Superintendent Donald Songy drawing on 37 years’ worth of experience in Ascension’s public school system.  “When we looked at the data from Donaldsonville, the children were just not successful.  We looked at everything we could possibly do.

“The children, when they started school, were two or three years behind.  Improving year after year, after year, they could never catch up.

“Unfortunately, you won’t see results next year, you won’t see results immediately.  But 20 years from now, 30 years from now people will look back and applaud you for the vision you had,” Songy predicted.

A lot of credit to be spread around, District 58 House of Representative Ken Brass was on hand with more positive news.

District 58 Representative Ken Brass

Pledging his “full support” along with that of Louisiana’s House of Representatives Education Committee, Brass deemed the effort “a game changer…not just for the west bank of Ascension Parish…but the River Parishes and a huge impact across this great state.”  And there is more.

“(Early Childhood Education) is only one piece of the puzzle.  We’re actually having conversations where we have allocated funds that we are going to start of satellite River Parishes Community College on the west bank in Donaldsonville,” Representative Brass announced. “It’s going to be the hub for St. James, Ascension, Iberville and Assumption (parishes).  Our goal is to teach our kids from birth to age three, work with the school system to get them from K(indergarten) to 12th grade and ultimately have them some training and job opportunities as they become productive citizens.”

UPDATE:  Authored by Representative Ken Brass, House Bill 460 of the 2022 Regular Legislative Session (which became Act 627 when Governor John Bel Edwards signed it into law) explicitly authorized funding the Early Childhood Development Center from the Juvenile Justice Program Fund.  The Bill/Act added new verbiage to Louisiana Revised Statute 15:1099.5, the statute enabling political subdivisions’ governing authorities to impose taxes without voter approval in certain instances.  Pursuant to paragraph C.(1)(a) such governing authorities can, by two-thirds vote, levy a one-mill property tax for up to 20 years…

“…for the purposes of acquiring, constructing, equipping, operating, maintaining, and managing a youth center and providing rehabilitative programs within a structured environment for children who enter the juvenile justice system or who are children in need of care or supervision, for preventative programs, or for making payments pursuant to a lease or lease purchase contract pursuant to this Subpart by a two-thirds vote of total membership of the governing authority, without voter approval, but only after a public hearing is held.

Text in red was added by HB 460.  Ascension’s Council

The Brass bill also added a new paragraph to define “preventative programs:

For purposes of this Paragraph, preventative programs include early childhood care and educational programming and infrastructure, and programs that address adverse childhood experiences as well as any related services and support for parents with the goal of ensuring children do not enter the juvenile justice system in the future.

It enables funding the Early Childhood Development Center from the Juvenile Justice Fund.  Though we do argue that the Ascension Parish Ordinance imposing the one-mill property tax does not allow it.