The Recovery School District  — not the Orleans Parish School Board — has control over the empty John McDonogh High School, the state Attorney General’s Office said in an opinion issued Thursday.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is the parent entity of the RSD, sought the opinion because the two boards that oversee most schools in New Orleans were squabbling over the campus. The RSD closed John McDonogh after the 2013-14 school year when the school housed there relinquished its charter after dismal test scores and falling enrollment.

The RSD is now evaluating proposals for a new charter organization to take over the building two years from now, after extensive repairs are complete. The School Board countered that the RSD has authority only to take over existing, failing schools, not open new ones.

According to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s opinion, the RSD maintains control of the building. However, the state school board does have the power to decide whether a school continues under the jurisdiction of the Recovery School District, the opinion says.

At the center of the debate was whether John McDonogh should return to the local School Board after the RSD shut down the previous educational program, run by a management organization called Future is Now.

The Orleans Parish School Board argues it is not the RSD’s place to open new schools in New Orleans — and the local board has passed a resolution stating that.

The RSD was originally created to take on failing schools, with the intent of returning them to the School Board once they reach certain academic benchmarks. But an administrative change has made it possible for even successful schools to stay with the RSD. This year, 36 schools had improved enough to return to the School Board; only two chose to do so.

School Board members have expressed frustration, saying that that the RSD is settling in as a parallel school system, when it should be working its way out of the city.

The Orleans Parish School Board passed a resolution last summer asking the state school board to return the school to local control. But BESE members stressed they did not know if they had the authority to hand over the building and requested the attorney general’s opinion.

In November, BESE member Carolyn Hill made a motion to return John McDonogh to the Orleans Parish School Board. That motion failed 2-5. And, seemingly, in direct response to Hill’s request, a motion to give the RSD complete control over finding a new operator for the school was approved 5-2.

The School Board has voted to sue the Recovery School District over the process the RSD is using to find a new operator for several schools, John McDonogh included.

Control of those buildings was transferred to the RSD along with control of the school in operation when the recovery district took over. The RSD took over more than 100 schools deemed failing by the state shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...