The Recovery School District has awarded the yet-to-be-built $51 million Booker T. Washington High School to KIPP New Orleans Schools in an unexpected re-assignment of the building this week.

KIPP was known to be in the market for a site to start another high school, but the new facility had already been assigned to Cohen College Prep charter school.

In an unusual triple-swap arrangement letter sent Tuesday, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said:

  • KIPP gets the Washington site,
  • KIPP will find its own financing to build a new school elsewhere, combining an elementary and middle school, and
  • Money once intended to fix those two KIPP schools will go to Cohen.

New Orleans College Prep CEO Ben Kleban is pleased with the outcome and said the changes were the result of an agreement between the district and two charter networks.

“We’re excited about it,” Kleban said. “I think this is going to be the best long-term solution for everyone involved.”

“The RSD has committed to build a new building at Cohen,” he said. “We know the funds that were originally estimated for (KIPP) Believe were about $21 million.”

It will take more than that to build a new Cohen, Kleban said, but the reconciliation process the district will go through with FEMA funding should help find up some additional funding.

Neither the leaders of KIPP New Orleans nor the Recovery School District returned calls for comment.

A resolution passed by KIPP’s board last week indicated the charter management organization was willing to take on the debt necessary to build a new school.

That resolution made reference to land within the “Bayou District.” Dobard’s letter confirms that KIPP is expected to build in the neighborhood of the former St. Bernard public housing complex, now known as Columbia Parc at the Bayou District.

The Recovery School District still controls a majority of schools in New Orleans, 10 years after taking over more than 100 public schools deemed failing by the state. The Master Plan, which includes the construction of Washington, was a joint project of both districts to rebuild about 80 schools for the city.

KIPP Believe was slated to be split between McNair and Johnson Elementary. The RSD will keep those campuses to be used as swing-space while school construction continues in the city.

The Booker T. Washington site comes with some underlying concerns. The debris-filled remnants of the technical high school that once stood at the edge of the now-empty B.W. Cooper housing complex sit on top of what was once the Silver City Dump.

Initially Cohen alumni were unhappy about the move and losing the legacy of their school, for what they say is no apparent reason. Alumni association president Jim Raby says the group was also worried about the large high school, and advocated for keeping kids at Cohen, which is a bit smaller.

But when they learned of the dump and that toxins can still be found on site, they argued against any school being built on the site.

The RSD has a state-approved plan to remediate the site — but it’s not the first time the city has constructed a school on a former dump.

Moton Elementary School opened atop the Agriculture Street Dump in 1987. It closed just seven years later after the EPA found more than 140 toxic chemicals there.

This year the Louisiana Legislature rejected a bill to ban the construction of new schools on former waste sites.

Asked about the updates Wednesday, Raby said he had divorced himself from the Washington site. Any fight to be staged now will have to be done by the Washington alumni he said.

As for Cohen students staying at Cohen?

“We’re extremely happy,” Raby said. “That’s essentially what we wanted all along.”

Kleban hopes the RSD will build the new Cohen on the same site. Cohen occupies two city blocks, one the school, the other green space.

According to the most recent facilities report the Recovery School District has available on its website, environmental remediation should be done in December. Another information sheet anticipates construction completion in November 2017.

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...