A photo from a state report of asbestos clean-up at Lafayette Academy shows an opening in the clean-up area. Credit: Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality

Two New Orleans charter schools will spend 2019-2020 in temporary facilities as multimillion-dollar asbestos remediation jobs stretch into another school year. The schools — Lafayette Academy and Rosenwald Collegiate Academy — had previously been expected to move into their permanent buildings this fall.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, the Orleans Parish School Board claims it has spent $5 million as a result of contractors’ mismanagement at Lafayette Academy’s South Carrollton Avenue building, which was closed last summer due to an asbestos release. The Choice Foundation, which runs Lafayette charter school, is OPSB’s co-plaintiff in the suit. The network says it’s spent $1.3 million replacing contaminated property.

Construction workers at Lafayette Academy botched an asbestos removal job last year. It was later discovered students had been on campus during previous asbestos work, potentially exposing them to the harmful material. A doctor later told parents their students were at little risk for asbestos-related illness.

After the asbestos release was made public last summer, the Orleans Parish School Board moved some of its students into the old McDonogh 35 building on Kerlerec Street. That move was briefly delayed after OPSB contractors working to prepare the former high school for Lafayette also ran into asbestos problems. That asbestos release was cleaned up in August.

Lafayette was part of the state-run Recovery School District when construction began in spring 2018. In the lawsuit, Choice said the RSD and its contractors withheld a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality report about asbestos problems at the school for a year.

On the West Bank, the Rosenwald Collegiate Academy building, which the growing school has never occupied, is undergoing its own $1.3 million asbestos cleanup. The Collegiate Academies charter group discovered the problem before moving the new school’s freshman class into the building — former home of Julius Rosenwald Elementary — last year.

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. It is generally safe unless renovations or other activities disturb the material.

Both schools appear to have had asbestos releases under RSD contractors.

Lawsuit: RSD withheld asbestos report

In the suit, Choice claims RSD contractors Jacobs Engineering and CSRS Consortium withheld a report from LDEQ that identified problems with asbestos at the school. The report was created in July 2017, but Choice claims it was not made aware of it until a year later.

The charter group stated that replacing furniture and equipment that may have been contaminated in the asbestos release has cost about $1.3 million.

“Many parents and students were upset that they were not notified of the report earlier, which Choice understands led to some students switching to other schools,” the suit says.

A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education, which oversees the RSD, said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

It’s not clear why the remediation is taking so long. But Choice CEO James Fulton confirmed Wednesday that Lafayette students will spend at least another year at a temporary campus as cleanup at the school continues. He said he’s skeptical that the work will be complete by summer 2020.

“The latest tentative move-in date provided to us by RSD is July 1, 2020,” Fulton wrote in an email to The Lens. “Given my extensive experience with construction projects, this date is likely [too] aggressive.”

In early 2017, workers were removing “asbestos flooring” from the third floor of the building, according to a state report.

“During that construction, Choice received complaints from faculty regarding smells and sounds that disrupted teaching and caused concern for their health,” the lawsuit states.

An inspector from LDEQ noted five areas of concern in a March 2017 visit. A report was issued in July 2017, according to the lawsuit.

“Neither Choice nor OPSB a copy of the LDEQ report dated July 31, 2017 that outlined these violations at the time the report was issued,” the suit says. “On the other hand, RSD and Jacobs were well aware of the report and findings at the time it was issued.”

The network and OPSB wouldn’t find out until the next summer, after a new phase of construction was underway.

Phase two of the asbestos removal project began in May 2018. This time, contractors hired Law Industries to perform the work. State inspectors visited the site soon after it started.

“On June 6, 2018, Jacobs and N-Y [an architectural firm also named as a defendant in the suit] discovered substantial asbestos contamination due to Law and mistakes and notified RSD,” the lawsuit states.

A week later, a state inspection inspection identified 13 areas of concern that eventually resulted in warning letters for Law Industries and Advanced Environmental Consulting.

In mid-July 2018, the RSD informed the school of the problem. And parents soon learned the school would have to find a new campus for the next year. At that time, school leaders assumed the remediation would be done for the 2019-2020 school year. But it won’t be.

The continued use of a temporary campus at McDonogh 35, miles away from Lafayette’s permanent facility, may have impacted enrollment, and as a result, the school’s state per-pupil revenue, the plaintiffs say.

“The Kerlerec Campus was not what many students and parents expected when enrolling their children at Lafayette Academy and the location was not as convenient, which may have affected enrollment, which cannot be calculated at this point,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks financial damages. Choice said its spent $1.3 million replacing contaminated property and OPSB has spent $5 million relocating schools and programs based on the need to accommodate Lafayette students.

The lawsuit says Choice won’t know true damages for a few years.

“Choice’s claims for lost profits will not be known until the loss of students can be calculated for the 2018-2019 school year or even until next year when Choice determines how many students it lost due to the relocation,” the lawsuit states. “The loss of a student in one year subsequently affects the lost profits for the remaining years that student would have attended Lafayette Academy.”

Charter group discovered asbestos issue at Rosenwald

Asbestos cleanup began at the Julius Rosenwald Elementary building this spring, nearly a year after the problem was discovered. But with the addition of a sophomore class, Rosenwald Collegiate, named after a building it’s never occupied, has outgrown its current temporary campus.

The students will move from the old Habans school at 3819 Herschel Street to William J. Fischer Elementary School for the 2019-2020 school year, Collegiate spokeswoman Zoey Reed told The Lens. The Fischer building will become empty this summer because the district closed its former tenant, Fischer Accelerated Academy.

A district spokeswoman confirmed the $1.3 million cleanup at the West Bank Rosenwald site.

Though the school is slated to occupy Fischer for the entire 2019-2020 school year — a decision made at last month’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting — an Orleans Parish school district spokeswoman said clean-up at its permanent site should be complete late this summer.

“The environmental project is currently underway at Rosenwald ES and is expected to be completed by August of 2019,” Tania Dall wrote in a statement.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has been investigating the cause of the asbestos release. Collegiate, a six-school charter network operating in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, discovered the problem after getting the keys to Rosenwald about a year ago.

LDEQ spokesman Gregory Langley said the state-run Recovery School District controlled the building at the time of the asbestos release.

The RSD “set about doing some work in the school to replace floor tiles,” he wrote in an email. “The work was not done under a plan and specifications.”

A document filed with the state in February said, “Previous floor tile abatement work probably caused the major fiber release.”

The Rosenwald school, like Lafayette Academy, is one of dozens of buildings that transferred from the control of the Recovery School District back to the local school district in 2018 when nearly all public schools returned to Orleans Parish School Board oversight.

Collegiate gained access to Rosenwald in April that year. On May 3, 2018 the network’s facilities manager Adam Reed expressed concerns about the state of floor tile in the building.

“We have a large amount of blue/green flooring that seems to be from a replacement job years ago,” he wrote in an email to Orleans district officials. “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.

The building was known to have material that contained asbestos. It is in some floor tile and the glue attaching it in several parts of the building, according to an asbestos management plan, a document required for schools.

The air quality test, showing an asbestos release, came back on May 5.

Now, one year later, the cleanup is ongoing.

“The remediation work now underway is being monitored by LDEQ,” Langley wrote in an email this week. “Both floor and ceiling tiles are being removed and replaced. LDEQ’s inspector visits the site once or twice a week to make sure removal and disposal is handled properly.”

As for who caused the problem in the first place, that is unclear.

“There has been no citation,” Langley said. “But an action is still possible.”

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...