State of Jefferson 2021
Despite another challenging year that saw the region facing a major hurricane and new variants of the COVID-19 virus, parish leaders gathered to deliver an overall optimistic view of Jefferson Parish at the annual State of Jefferson address.
Held on November 17, 2021 at the Chateau Golf & Country Club, this year’s panel included Cynthia Lee Sheng, Jefferson Parish President; Scott Walker, Councilman-at-Large for Division B; and Dr. James Gray, Superintendent for Jefferson Parish Schools.
Lee Sheng first took the stand to address ongoing Hurricane Ida recovery efforts in Grand Isle, Lafitte, Grand Point, Barataria and surrounding areas. “Over 3,000 structures [were] completely destroyed or with major damage,” she said. “There was no evidence for some that the structures were ever there. Another 9,000 structures sustained minor damage. 30,000 electricity poles were damaged, according to Entergy, compared to 17,000 during Hurricane Katrina. [There were] 200 water breaks to our water system. All but 4 of our 530 sewer stations [were] completely offline. Eight refineries that supply two-thirds of our state’s refining capacity and gas supply [were] completely out. And 1.4 million cubic yards of debris have been picked up to date.”
But data, as Lee Sheng pointed out, does not include accurate depiction of the human experience, nor does it encompass the breadth of heroism demonstrated by first responders, medical providers or volunteers who came together to provide shelter and necessities to those displaced by the storm.
“We’re so grateful for the many donations that came in, the outpouring of support,” she said. “As you can see it was a tremendous amount of work for first responders, firefighters, police, EMS, medical, our National Guard who’s been a partner with us for the past 20 months, as well as departments in our Jefferson Parish government, our council offices, and countless nonprofit volunteer and church organizations.”
Lee Sheng said that as recovery is ongoing for coastal communities, conversations have also turned to ways to connect those areas with metropolitan Jefferson and Orleans, both to accommodate short-term travel and tourism and to create ease-of-access in situations that demand immediate response. “What if an out-of-towner could take a trip to the Greater New Orleans area, and take a half hour drive to Lafitte, and a half hour boat ride to Grand Isle? These are the conversations that are going on now as we rebuild.”
The Parish President also emphasized the administration’s impressive response to COVID, citing the development of one of the first free testing pilots in the country, mass vaccination events, and targeted outreach for non-English speaking citizens and those living with disabilities. Looking forward, Lee Sheng said both the sewer and water systems will be updated over the next 20 years, with projects estimated at $1.1 billion for water and $1.2 billion for sewer. Local government is also focused on innovation, including a soon-to-launch app that will provide updates on playground events, a mobility assistance program that will allow impaired citizens to communicate with transit operators more efficiently, a cost-saving online tool for the fleet department, specific training opportunities for the fire department and upcoming programming focused on diversity and inclusion.
Next, Scott Walker opened his presentation by saying, “Where there is crisis and where there is uncertainty, there is opportunity.”
“The American Rescue Plan Act will leave us with $84 million to spend in this parish in transformative ways,” Walker said. “Major road projects are happening across the parish. Sales tax revenue is up 17% year to year. This council and administration have, without question, been through more in the past 20 months than any in the history of our parish.”
Walker said that Councilman Dominick Impastato has been leading a task force focused on creative ways to use the American Rescue Plan Act funding to ensure that Jefferson Parish emerges from the pandemic stronger than before; that task force’s findings and recommendations will be reviewed in early 2022. Walker then cycled through brief updates on each district within the parish, highlighting their key accomplishments and initiatives.
In District 1, represented by Marion Edwards, Walker discussed ongoing gas and energy restoration, as well as the recently-opened golf course, nature trail, splash park and dog park. A fishing pier is in the design phase with construction set to start in Spring 2022. The extension of Harvey Boulevard to Peters Road is set for construction in Summer 2022, and improvements to Hector Avenue are underway.
In District 2, represented by Deano Bonano, Hope Haven is being revitalized and, Walker says, “will be a great asset to the Westbank of Jefferson Parish before too long.” Additionally, a fitness and walking track is nearing completion for January 2022.
In District 3, represented by Byron Lee, the Avondale Public Library is in progress, and an amphitheater and walking trail are being planned at 5528 Westbank Expressway. New public spaces in Marrero will include a splash park, putt-putt golf and a farmer’s market.
In District 4, represented by Dominick Impastato, are improvements to Lafreniere Park, including synthetic turf soccer fields that opened in August and which Walker hopes will allow the parish to attract more professional sporting events. The David Drive project is set to be completed in March 2022 and includes reconstructed drainage, landscaping and beautification. Significant improvements are planned for the Kenner Boat Launch, a project estimated at $1 million, along with 1,800 feet of constructed shore to control wave action, estimated at $3.7 million.
In District 5, represented by Jennifer Van Vrancken, the multi-phase Bucktown Harbor Master Plan will begin construction in early 2022, with improvements including an elevated outdoor classroom, a kayak and canoe launch, and a children’s play area. Several projects were completed in 2021, such as the Bucktown Boardwalk, the Cleary Avenue drainage project and the reopening of Bayou Metairie Park, a multi-functional green space located on Metairie Road. The Severn Corridor Improvement Project is also underway and will include larger drainage under Severn, new roadway surfaces and fresh landscaping.
Walker rounded out his presentation by looking ahead to 2022, during which the council will review the Technical Evaluation Committee process “to make for a more fair, equitable process in the awarding of contracts,” and redistricting based on the 2020 Census “will consist of very small things that will make a very big difference in the parish.”
Finally, Superintendent Dr. James Gray updated attendees on the state of education in the parish, stressing the importance of showing kids and families that they can not only receive a high-quality education here, but that they can find career opportunities here as well. He said he is proud that schools have been operating in-person since 2020.
“We’re able to say we can safely come back to school, keep our kids in school, keep our teachers, staff, administrators and students safe, and still provide a quality education,” said Dr. Gray. “That says a lot.”
He said that the school system set a record of 10,000 certifications issued during the pandemic, and “that means our kids are leaving our schools being prepared for the workplace.” He also thanked the parish administration for partnering with Jefferson Parish schools to ensure that all families had access to broadband internet connections when virtual lessons were necessary, and by sending kids home with devices such as laptops and tablets, they are effectively opening new doors for technology-based opportunities in the future.
Echoing President Lee Sheng’s point on diversity and inclusion, Dr. Gray said Jefferson Parish schools are committed to providing high quality education to students regardless of economic disadvantages or language barriers.
“In Jefferson, 83% of our kids are economically disadvantaged, 19% have exceptionalities and 17% have limited English proficiency,” he said. “If a student walks into our building and cannot speak the language, it does not mean they do not have the cognitive abilities to function within the work. They just have a barrier. That’s the form of equity we look for in our educational system, where we give kids who have barriers the opportunity to meet their potential.”
Dr. Gray said that learning loss because of the pandemic and subsequent hurricanes, which resulted in increased time spent outside of the classroom, are also being addressed. “We started off with over 20,000 students that were virtual and ended with 12,000, but still that’s a significant number of kids that were out of school for extended periods of time,” he said. “We’re starting to see some growth and progress. When we start looking at what we did in relationship to summer bridge—our revised summer program, where we have not only curriculum but enrichment opportunities—when we tested our kids who took part in that program, 60% of our students showed growth in ELA with an average growth of 13%, and 70% of our kids showed growth in math with an average growth of 8%. That’s a small snapshot of what we can overcome.”
Those efforts will continue, he said, with focuses on both early learners and high school-aged students, who will particularly benefit from STEM courses such as coding and mechatronics. Dr. Gray said that having come from a disadvantaged background himself, he knows divides can be closed through individualized care and targeted outreach initiatives.
“Their story is my story,” Dr. Gray said. “I am proof that if you commit to that work, it will work. We coined the phrase, ‘Be the champions our kids deserve,’ and that includes everyone. It’s not just the people in the classrooms, but the people that are in hospitals, in businesses. The more we champion the cause for our kids, the better our society will be.”