The May 17 board meeting at Ben Franklin High School began a half-hour earlier than usual to honor retiring French teacher Mme. Martine Alford.

Jean-Claude Brunet, the French consul general in New Orleans, and cultural attaché Philippe Aldon made Alford a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques on behalf of the French government.

Around 45 colleagues and friends attended the ceremony.

In presenting the award, Brunet thanked Alford for her “personal and professional commitment to supporting the French language for over 30 years.”

“France is grateful for what you have done. Four adjectives come to mind when looking at your long career: curiosity, dedication, passion, and loyalty,” Brunet said.

Alford said she “was lucky to both begin and end her career at Ben Franklin High School, where there are superb students, and a diverse and eccentric staff.”

Alford concluded by saying, “The students are what have kept me in the field for 31 years. Vive la France en Louisiane!”

Board president Duris Holmes made a last-minute addition to the meeting agenda by permitting a group of protesters to address the board for 10 minutes. Thirty-five members of the Vietnamese-American Young Leaders Assn., known as VAYLA, had been picketing the board to provide free bus service to the school for the large population of low-income students living in New Orleans East.

The group arrived with video and still cameras, as well as students and parents ready to give testimonials.

Prior to the start of the meeting, Holmes told The Lens that the board has heard the group’s requests, and is currently working with the Regional Transit Authority to find a solution.

Holmes has previously told VAYLA there would be an answer at the June 21 board meeting, as they needed time to examine the legal and financial implications of the request.

The school currently provides students with free bus tokens, but VAYLA contends that  “the system doesn’t work.”

The group is also un-happy with the current transfer and drop-off locations going to and from New Orleans East and the school’s lakefront location.

The group is requesting that the money Ben Franklin receives from the state for transportation be used for school buses rather than city bus tokens.

“When a student requests tokens for the first time, they are given an application. What happens in the case of an emergency? That application isn’t going to pay for the bus fare home,” said one VAYLA representative.

Students said it can be hard to coordinate the bus schedules with after-school tutoring, and parents complained about the high cost of the long commute.

After the group left, principal Timothy Rusnak discussed the issue further, saying that the RTA is willing to develop a solution.

“Our charter says we will provide transportation, but it does not specify the method. We’ve already reached out to RTA, these things have been explicitly explained to them (VAYLA). Generally speaking, high schools in urban areas do no supply direct, yellow-bus transportation,” Rusnak said.

In his principal’s report, Rusnak discussed the recent approval of $898,000 in post-Katrina disaster recovery funds for Franklin.

Expressing frustration over FEMA’s lack of communication with the school, Rusnak said  he is still waiting to see a time-table, or plans for the proposed improvements.

“We have to chase these people around, and we’re still not finding anything out. I was at a preliminary meeting last week, and happened to notice a piece of paper just lying on a desk. It had the contractors and their bids listed on it – that’s how I found out about that information, by happening to find that sheet of paper,” Rusnak said.

Rusnak listed the improvements he is currently aware of as:

  • A new courtyard
  • New lighting in the atrium
  • New door system for exterior, first floor doors
  • Repairs to the gymnasium roof
  • New sound and lighting systems in the auditorium
  • A re-doing of the back courtyard
  • Replacing the large, glass piece above the main entrance
  • Possible new bleachers on the field

Rusnak informed the board that Bacari was the contractor chosen, and Charles Foreman III will be the project manager.

He noted that it is probable this work will not be completed by the start of the 2012-2013 school year.

“We are going to have to manage kids around this work. We are trying to work with the New Orleans Fire Department to make sure the proper exits will be closed off. Our kids need to move around safely,” said Rusnak.

The board echoed Rusnak’s frustrations saying that “no-one internally has had any input on any of this. It is very strange and frustrating.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for June 21 at 4:00 p.m.