A brand new bright sign adorns the weathered entrance to Rosenwald school on Berkley Drive. The school was supposed to open, as Rosenwald Collegiate Academy, to 9th grade students in August. But the modest brick and red building sits empty. A less prominent sign tells passersby that story: “CAUTION: ASBESTOS. HAZARDOUS.”
An air quality test at the school revealing airborne asbestos is at least the third such incident the Orleans Parish school district has faced this year. This time, clean-up is going to cost the district $1.3 million.
Last week, the Orleans Parish School Board approved a contract to take care of asbestos at Rosenwald. The district also increased its contract with MMG, the environmental firm that manages asbestos problems in the city’s schools, by $200,000. That’s the second increase this year, bringing the contract to a total of $700,000 over three years.
The problem at Rosenwald wasn’t detected by either the state-run Recovery School District, which formerly controlled the building, or the Orleans Parish school district, which took it over this spring. The school was previously used by the Algiers Charter School Association. It closed in June 2017 to allow students to attend better schools.
“The RSD and OPSB were working together to prepare the facility for use by a new charter school operator,” Louisiana Department of Education Chief Operating Officer Bridget Devlin said. “All work occurred after the school building was vacant.”
After the 46-year-old building went back to local control, Collegiate Academies, a charter school network, was planning to open a new school in the Rosenwald building this fall, hence the new sign. Collegiate found the worrisome asbestos levels, apparently in preparation to remove buckling floor tile.
“Upon the hand-off of the building in April, Collegiate Academies conducted additional air quality testing to ensure the health and safety of students, families, and staff,” Collegiate spokeswoman Zoey Reed wrote. “Testing showed the need for asbestos abatement and remediation.”
Both Reed and Devlin confirmed the Recovery School District had contract workers performing tile repairs at that time.
Asbestos, a commonly used building material until the 1980s, is dangerous when its fibers becomes airborne. Many old schools may contain the fire-retardant material in floor tiles and adhesive, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation, all of which are generally safe unless disturbed. At least two other city schools, the old McDonogh 35 building and Lafayette Academy, have also undergone asbestos-related cleaning this year.
We asked Reed what prompted the charter network to test air quality.
In an email, she wrote, “Due diligence because of the age of the facility and for an abundance of caution to ensure the safety of our kids and staff.”
The Rosenwald story is a familiar one for Lafayette Academy families. The Carrollton-area charter school had a tumultuous summer.
After learning a botched project would keep Lafayette students out of the building for a year, WWNO revealed that students had been in school during an abatement project the year prior. Then, the charter’s temporary site also had to undergo emergency asbestos abatement before school could begin this fall.
Rosenwald Collegiate opened at a temporary site at 3819 Herschel Street this fall, too.
Collegiate gained access to the Rosenwald building on April 1, Reed said. That’s when the facility transferred from the Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board.
Devlin said that’s when a district contractor was finishing up a tile project.
On May 3, Collegiate’s Director of Facilities Adam Reed — Zoey Reed’s husband — emailed the Orleans school district with three main concerns: air conditioning, flooring and the bus drop-off area.
The school’s air conditioning system is old and appeared incapable of cooling the entire building, he wrote. He was also concerned about the school’s main entrance. A large concrete slab was subsiding, he wrote. Not only was it a tripping hazard, but an engineer “has deemed the area unfit for use.”
“He has found there to be no evidence of support in the concrete slab to keep it from collapsing if a group of students were to stand on it,” Reed wrote.
Reed also expressed concern about the floor tile.
“We have a large amount of blue/green flooring that seems to be from a replacement job years ago,” he wrote. “The replacement flooring is popping up due to heat and moisture and the building not having air flow due to the HVAC system being down or shut off from the past.”
“The floor also is popping up because of improper installation,” he continued, noting flooring vendors guessed either the previous workers used the wrong glue or didn’t clean thoroughly before laying the tile.
“I still recommend running an aggressive air clearance in those areas of the school where major areas floor tile were removed,” Carter cautioned the school. “But it does not look like a major abatement or response action will be required.”
That turned out to be wrong. On May 5, two days after Reed emailed the district his concerns about the floor tiles, the school’s air quality tests came in. Carter emailed Reed, saying that “asbestos fibers were identified above the required clearance standard in multiple air samples.”
Carter suggested Collegiate limit access to the building and come up with a remediation plan.
Adam Reed emailed the district, which set off a chain reaction.
An email titled “URGENT!! Rosenwald Asbestos release” was sent from one district administrator to another. They decided to work with MMG on a plan and put out a bid for remediation. Days later, the district notified the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
The district retraced its steps, contacting the RSD to find out what kinds of construction work had been performed while in its custody and whether it could have caused an asbestos release.
A spokeswoman for the School Board said, “The district was not aware of issues,” when it handed the building over to Collegiate.
In an email, Jeanie Decuers, the RSD’s director of facilities, said tile work had been done “recently.” A scope of recent work shows tile removal and replacement was completed by a contractor in several parts of the school.
“That work was happening when Collegiate came in the building to tour the building and see what’s going on,” Devlin said. “There were projects that we said we’d complete and they were in the process of completing them.”
In the May 7 email, Decuers wrote, “The areas where we performed ﬂoor tile removal and replacement listed on the attached scope of work, per the Asbestos Management Plan, had no [asbestos-containing material] in the mastic or ﬂoor tile, except for the cafeteria,” where it had been treated and sealed.
“This was veriﬁed before the contactor [sic] was given clearance to begin the work,” she wrote.
That runs counter to what Carter would tell Collegiate a week later after additional testing.
“At this point, it’s appropriate to conclude that all floor tile, regardless of location, could be covering asbestos-containing mastic and any future floor tile replacement, renovation or response actions must take that into account,” Carter wrote in a May 15 email.
The Rosenwald school is one of dozens of buildings that transferred from the control of the Recovery School District back to the local school district this year. It’s the first time since Hurricane Katrina that nearly all public schools are back under the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board.
When the RSD took over failing schools, it also took control of the buildings they were in. Now OPSB is responsible for the majority of buildings in the city, including dozens that were out of their hands for a decade or more. The RSD has retained control of a few ongoing construction projects.
Generally, charter schools are responsible for building maintenance while the controlling district, either the RSD or OPSB, is responsible for major repairs.
Each school building has an asbestos management plan, which is required by state code. An inspection must be conducted every three years with a designated person checking on the condition of areas of concern every six months.
Rosenwald’s last full plan was done in 2016; a new one is due in 2019. When the Algiers Charter Schools ran a school at Rosenwald, its facilities director conducted the six-month walkthroughs, according to documents.
It’s unclear if anyone performed the checks last year while the building was vacant. Devlin said she would look into it. In the most recent plan, provided by the state, the Algiers Charter employee is still listed as the designated person. A plan, purportedly for the Rosenwald building, provided by the school district weeks ago, doesn’t contain the word “Rosenwald.” It appears to be for another school. After this story was first published, the district sent a plan matching the one the state provided.
Collegiate got a copy of the asbestos management plan from the RSD when it gained control of the building, Zoey Reed said.
At last week’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting, the RSD’s former director of capital improvements, Lona Hankins, spoke up, saying she wants the Orleans Parish school district to be more aggressive about building safety and more transparent about potential hazards.
“I think it’s important that your charter compliance office makes sure that schools are communicating to parents about the asbestos hazards in their buildings,” she said. “The EPA has written into law what schools are supposed to do every year in notifying parents that there is asbestos.”
Notifying parents about the management plan and procedures for abatement “should be part of your contract with your charters, and someone should be monitoring that piece, that it is happening at every school,” Hankins said.
Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. asked to meet with Hankins to “talk about these things so that we can all be knowledgeable about them so we can get to work on them.”
Zoey Reed said Collegiate will check the air again before the school moves into the building.
“Extensive tests will be conducted upon its completion to ensure that the building is safe before students and staff enter the facility.”
This story was updated to include the district’s current asbestos management plan for Rosenwald.