Legality of Frichter Gym demo. questionedApr 15th, 2011 | By William Dilella | Category: News
The old St. Claude Heights School Gymnasium, along with the school itself, suffered irreparable damage in Hurricane Katrina. In November 2009, four years and $700,000 in renovations later, The St. Bernard Parish Government celebrated the grand opening of the remodeled Sammy Frichter Gym.
So when the gym was demolished to make room for a new structure this past month there was confusion among residents. And though the proposed new gymnasium is necessary to house the increasing number of students, the question surrounding the legality of the demolition still haunts the issue.
The Frichter Gym
“[After Katrina] FEMA had determined that the school met the 50 percent replacement rules and had to demolish it, and we would build a new building,” said Superintendant of St. Bernard Schools Doris Voitier of the old school buildings.
“Renovation to Sammy Frichter [Gym] at the old St. Claude Heights School site cost about $700,000…was funded mostly by FEMA, with about $4,500 in parish government funds,” said the Parish Government Website.
Before the storm, the building was a neighborhood school, only about 200 students.
“When we rebuilt the school itself we built it for a larger community of children. It has between 750 and 800 students at Arabi Elementary,” said Voitier, which opened its doors in August 2010.
So, the old complex did not meet the needs of the increased student population at the elementary school that was built on the St. Claude site.
“We couldn’t even fit them in the gymnasium,” said the superintendent.
Why not at the council meeting?
Parish President Craig Taffaro announced on March 15 of this year, “…Design is underway for a new gym at the St. Claude Heights site. The demolition phase of the old gym is complete and the new Sammy Frichter Gym should be in place during the next school year.”
The fact that the demolition of the Sammy Frichter Gym was decided at a building mitigation meeting and not a Parish Council Meeting may have caused some of the confusion for parish residents.
“It is a recovery project,” said Councilmen-at-Large Frank Auderer, “and that committee meets regularly just to discuss the ongoing projects.”
Ms. Voitier said, “In discussions with President Taffaro, we agreed that if he would demolish the building, we would rebuild the gym, and we would have the same arrangement that parish government had and parish recreation would utilize it for their services and their activities for that community on the evenings and weekend, and we would use it during the day and after school,” said Voitier. “And we would get a beautiful building that would be commensurate with the gyms that are on the other elementary school sites.”
Replacing the council
“There is nothing that can supplant governmental action in disposing of an asset,” said Councilman George Cavignac.
Cavignac agreed that the initial tear down and restoration of the school was authorized by FEMA, and therefore capable of being executed by Mr. Taffaro without the council’s direct authorization. However, the recent demolition was not a FEMA obligated project, and should have been presented to the council.
“If the proposal would have come before the council as it should have, I would have had no problem whatsoever voting for it,” said Cavignac.
The councilman said he does not speak for the school board on this decision, and does see the new structure as a good thing for St. Bernard, but he believes the mitigation committee should not circumvent the council’s approval when it comes to a parish asset.
“It’s an ad-hoc committee mainly for discussion purposes,” said Cavignac. “There is no real authority whatsoever for the building mitigation administrative ad-hoc committee to make decisions that are enforceable. They all should go through the normal channels. By law, we have to. You cannot do anything with a parish government asset without council action.”
“If you’ve got some business, bring it to the council,” Cavignac continued.
One more thing
As for the renovations already performed on the Sammy Frichter Gym, including the materials in the building, Councilman Auderer assured, “We have salvaged whatever was possible to salvage, just as we did at the fire station #3, that FEMA put in, and we have all that material in storage…whatever we could get out of there, we have.”
Michael Munna, of Munna Towing, bid $8,500 for the contract to demo the structure. He won by email bid between two other parties. Munna was promised consideration of materials as part of the contract. The same materials paid for with the FEMA and parish money. Though he has not been paid yet for the work, Munna did end up receiving some of those building materials.
“I took my materials with me,” said Munna.
Once design is complete, “The school board has some FEMA dollars,” said Councilman Auderer, “dedicated to the reconstruction of that gym.” At which point the building will become school board property, and they will take care of the funding and utilities.
But Councilman Cavignac said, even after the fact, that this disposal of a parish asset was, “very questionable.”