Orleans School Board moving ahead with McDonogh 7 land swap for former dumpsite

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Marta Jewson/The Lens

Parents drop off their children at Audubon Charter School housed at the McDonogh No. 7 building on Milan Street.

Parents drop off their children at Audubon Charter School housed at the McDonogh No. 7 building on Milan Street.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

The Orleans Parish School Board is ready to move forward with its plans to trade the historic McDonogh No. 7 school for land atop the former Silver City dump for use as high school athletic fields.

At a committee meeting Tuesday, district Executive Director of Capital Planning Sue Robertson said only two New Orleans charter schools had expressed interest in the roughly 140-year-old school, and neither wanted to buy or lease it, freeing up the district to dispose of it.

“So we’re going to move forward with the other options on the property that were discussed,” Robertson said.

The board announced plans to swap the school for land owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans near Booker T. Washington High School on Earhart Boulevard earlier this year.

That caught the attention of the Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association and its members. Not only does the group want McDonogh 7, located on Milan Street, to remain a school, they think it’s more valuable than the property officials have their eyes on.

The HANO land the district is looking at sits atop the former Silver City dump, a city landfill that operated until the 1930s. Nearby land, where the Booker T. Washington High School is nearing completion, was remediated by the state-run Recovery School District before the school was built.

It wouldn’t be the first time the district built a school atop a former dump. The original Booker T. Washington High School opened on the site in 1942. Later, the district built Moton Elementary atop the Agriculture Street landfill in the 9th Ward, likewise adjacent to a HANO development.  The school district actually delayed Moton’s groundbreaking there in 1985 to replace topsoil, but a decade later, tests showed toxins throughout the neighborhood. The district relocated those students in 1994 and the once state-of-the-art school now sits vacant.

It’s unclear what remediation work has been done at the HANO site the district wants to use for Booker T. Washington’s athletic fields. HANO did not respond to a request for comment. The Orleans Parish school district did not respond to repeated requests for comment inquiring what work had been done and whether it met requirements for school use. KIPP New Orleans Schools, which would use the site, declined to answer questions, referring The Lens to the district.

A “swap” then a “sale”

Initially, the district contended because the transfer would be a “swap,” not a “sale,” there was no need to offer the building to charter schools.

At the board meeting in April, officials back-tracked on the “swap” plan and moved McDonogh No. 7 to the district’s surplus list. That triggered a state law that requires the district to offer unused buildings to any charter school that may want to lease or purchase the property.

McDonogh No. 7’s school’s current occupant, the upper grades of Audubon Charter School, is set to leave after the 2020-21 school year.

The Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the district in May, contending that it can’t declare a building surplus property while it’s occupied and that the district’s attempt to find a user for the building in 2021 was too limited, in that it only allowed for current schools interested in moving, not new charter groups or current charter groups interested in expanding their networks.

The group also objected to the one-month time frame the district allowed schools to express an interest in the site.

“The short, twenty-nine-day time period was carved out for existing charter schools to express interest in the site and fully commit to using the site two (2) years from now,” the lawsuit states.

Both Crescent City Schools and Bricolage Academy initially expressed interest in the building, a move that could have delayed a sale, but both groups decided against moving forward with negotiations on the building.

Bricolage CEO Josh Densen confirmed the group inquired to learn more about the facility.

“OPSB appears to be in a more advanced stage with the property than Bricolage is prepared act upon,” Densen wrote in an email. “We are not actively searching for additional space, but are always open to learning more about possible facilities as they become available.”

Board member Woody Koppel acknowledged the neighborhood group’s wish.

“It’d be nice if it could remain a school,” Koppel said. “It’d be nice if there was a charter that was interested in it but unfortunately there’s not at this point.”

What makes a school?

Every year in New Orleans, some charters open and others close. That how the system was designed — to close low-performing schools and offer renewed contracts to high-performing ones. It creates a rotating crop of schools.

The neighborhood association raised this point in their lawsuit, and the district outlined what organizations could apply for McDonogh 7 in response to questions from The Lens.

“A CMO would need to fill out a survey to indicate interest in the building,” district spokeswoman Ambria Washington wrote in an email. “The survey was sent to all school leaders.”

But neither prospective school groups in the process of seeking a first-time charter to open a school, as well as current charter networks seeking to open new schools within their networks are eligible to express interest, Washington said.

State law allows the district to sell property that “is not used and, in the judgment of the school board, is not needed in the operation of any school or schools within its jurisdiction.”

The neighborhood group contends the district made that determination too early in the process because it likely won’t reflect the open schools in existence the year Audubon moves out.

“The Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association and its President, Rella Zapletal, seek to ensure that the historic building that has served as a school for more than 140 years, now home to Audubon Charter School, is preserved, and that the neighborhood has every opportunity afforded by law to maintain it as a neighborhood school,” the group’s attorney Randall Smith wrote in an emailed statement.

A judge denied the group’s request for a temporary restraining order earlier this month. But the two sides are set to see each other in court next week for a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

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