Julius Rosenwald Elementary was supposed to open its doors as Rosenwald Collegiate Academy in August 2018. But air quality tests performed by the charter school showed problematic levels of airborne asbestos. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The NOLA Public Schools district will host a series of community meetings focusing on the condition of its school buildings according to a release from the district. The district will also present preliminary plans for its so-called “surplus properties,” which can include vacant buildings and land as well as buildings the district plans to vacate. 

The meetings are part of developing what the district has called its Unified Facility Plan, which has been in the works since state-run Recovery School District charter schools returned to Orleans Parish School Board oversight in 2018. Though the RSD no longer oversees any charter schools in the city, it still runs a handful of construction projects. 

Members of the public have urged the district to develop a comprehensive plan for its property. A former district employee, Ken Ducote, who now directs the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, is among them.  

“I do think the lack of a staff architect is a hole that should be filled,” Ducote told Orleans Parish School Board members at their August meeting, noting agencies in the city of similar size have architects on staff. 

A bill passed last session that shifted a portion of a special facility fund to student services was championed by the superintendent but criticized by Ducote and others who questioned the district’s understanding of facility maintenance costs.

The decentralized district — composed entirely of charter schools — is quite unique. The district has to provide facilities for some types of charter schools but not others. The district is responsible for major improvements and charters are responsible for maintenance. 

The unified facility plan aims to outline the districts needs and plans for facilities, and the board is expecting it to be complete by November

“We plan to present a series of data that informs draft recommendations identifying long-term property needs and a strategy for surplus property,” Communications Director Tania Dall wrote in an emailed statement attributed to NOLA Public Schools. “Plans will not affect the location or long term home of occupied school facilities.”

“Surplus property” is a legal designation, subject to a board vote. Earlier this year, the district reported that it had 17 vacant properties for which it had not identified a use. It’s not clear if all of those properties were considered surplus. This year, a district proposal to swap the historic McDonogh No. 7 school for vacant land owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, near a new high school, wound up in court. A neighborhood group sued the district, arguing it hadn’t followed its own rules when it comes to declaring surplus property. 

Over the last year, the district has established new specifications for schools. They generally don’t want facilities on sites smaller than 3.5 acres. The district also uses what it calls a “Facility Condition Index” that measures the cost to repair versus the cost to replace the building. A high FCI means it’s cheaper to build a new school than refurbish the old one. 

In a February report on vacant buildings the public can see whether schools near them meet the district’s standards. 

In March and April, the district presented information on elementary and high school facilities. Of 25 elementary schools that have had less than $5 million of investment post-Katrina, only five meet the 3.5 acreage site preference.  The district has 24 high schools, 10 of which are new builds. 

Even with its large stock of new facilities — the result of $2 billion of post-Katrina FEMA funding — the district is dealing with a variety of problems at older school buildings and continues to shift schools into temporary spaces as it rebuilds. 

The district is also spending millions of dollars on asbestos remediation projects at Einstein’s Village de L’est campus and the Julius Rosenwald School, which was supposed to open with Rosenwald’s Collegiate Academy in 2018. Instead Rosenwald, in its second year of operation, is also in its second temporary school

Ongoing problems with asbestos remediation, which WWNO reporter Jess Clark revealed had taken place while students were in the building, at Lafayette Elementary School have kept students from that campus for two years. 

Some schools are currently in temporary facilities while they’re waiting on new construction or ongoing renovation. Hurricane Barry delayed Benjamin Franklin Elementary School’s return to its home building because the storm prevented contractors from testing the facility’s power supply. Walter Cohen College Preparatory High School moved over to Edgar Harney Elementary School as the district prepares to tear down Cohen and build a new school next door. 

The presentation will include facility information and enrollment trends. The district currently oversees about 45,000 students according to a budget presentation made at last month’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting. District staff will also be available for questions. 

The first meeting will be held on Tuesday at Langston Hughes Academy at 3519 Trafalgar Street at 6 p.m. On Wednesday, district staff will present at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School at 3619 General Pershing Street. 

Next week, meetings will be held at Alice M. Harte Charter School and Lake Forest Charter School. 

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...