FirstLine Live Oak School in Uptown. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The upcoming closures of three New Orleans charter schools will leave their publicly owned buildings empty, and NOLA Public Schools officials are looking for schools currently located in older or deteriorating facilities to take them over. 

The district has experienced declining enrollment in recent years, prompting a review of its operational capacity that officials are calling a “right-sizing” process, an undertaking that could mean additional charter school closures or consolidations. 

It’s a complicated undertaking in the unique all-charter district where independent charter schools operate on contracts and the district has limited control to quickly shrink the system by closing schools. 

As a result of declining enrollment, two charter groups announced in early January they would each close a school at the end of this school year. An additional two schools are slated to close after failing to meet academic requirements to earn a new charter. 

Those closures will leave three district-owned school buildings empty as of this summer. (The fourth school, James M. Singleton Charter School, operates in a privately owned facility.) At a Tuesday Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting, district officials said they are letting other charter programs apply to relocate to them, something it is calling a “facility siting process.”

“How does the facility siting process overlap with the right-sizing process?” board president Olin Parker asked Tuesday.

Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said they both aim to maximize the number of students in newer and more cost-efficient facilities. District officials also want to make sure that school programs match the facility they are in, for example a science-focused charter program would ideally have ample lab space and science equipment.

“That will help us get students into better buildings,” she said. “We also want to see that your program capacity fits that building well.” 

The three buildings are Charles Drew Elementary on St. Claude Avenue, which currently houses Arise Academy; Frances Gaudet School on Hayne Boulevard, which currently houses IDEA Oscar Dunn; and the Live Oak building on Constance Street, which currently houses FirstLine Live Oak. 

To apply for one of the three buildings, a school must currently be in a relatively low quality building, which Delcour said will be determined by its “facility condition index.” An FCI is calculated by comparing a building’s total deferred maintenance costs to its estimated replacement value. Declour said 10 schools are in buildings with an FCI that would make them eligible to move. 

“When we looked at where we drew the line on FCI — 10 buildings represent 60 percent of our capital planning over the next ten years,” she said. Delcour did not name the ten buildings.

“Those are really expensive buildings to operate,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said. “Our schools know they need dollars to invest in their students instead of dollars for their building because of age.” 

Board members requested access to full facility assessment reports — with proposed schedules of needed repairs — for district-owned buildings, but district officials balked. While the assessments exist, creating reports showing repair schedules would be time-consuming, they said. They added that the administration is already stretched thin running the district during a pandemic, and the central office has lost several key staff members who deal with facilities and maintenance. After several minutes of back and forth, Lewis suggested moving on.

Delcour said charter groups can tour the soon-to-be-vacant facilities in the coming month and apply to relocate to them. Lewis said he would announce any moves at the March board meeting.

COVID-19 and other matters

In addition to overseeing facility work, Delcour has coordinated the district’s COVID-19 response. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Delcour also announced that the district had received 40,000 rapid antigen COVID-19 tests from the federal government. She said they’d distributed 20,000 tests to schools so far and “anticipate distributing a similar amount this Friday.”

She also said that 65 percent of schools had scheduled COVID-19 testing — after Mardi Gras but before students return from break — in an effort to cut down on any spread of the virus resulting from celebration. Most schools give the entire week of Mardi Gras off and while many families participate in or attend the activities many also choose to travel that week — all of which could contribute to spreading the virus. 

In 2020, Mardi Gras was an early spreader of the virus in Louisiana’s initial outbreak, possibly responsible for up to 50,000 cases, one report found. Researchers called the event an “amplifier.” 

With vaccinations available to everyone five and older, including a district requirement that students receive the vaccine, officials say Carnival is less risky this year. Regardless, many schools will offer testing in the latter half of the Mardi Gras break week.

The district’s Director of Community Relations Justin McCorkle presented the district’s 2022 legislative priorities on Tuesday. The ten priorities center heavily on student health and well-being, expanded resources for early childhood education, struggling students and an increase in per-pupil funding. The district will also be advocating for preserving TOPS, the state’s scholarship program, teacher pay raises and making it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom, among other things.

Asked about any work that’s already taken place McCorkle said he’s had conversations with local representatives about the upcoming regular session. However, he noted, most of them have been very busy with the special session to address redistricting that wrapped up on Tuesday. 

Finally, a firm contracted to lead a search for a superintendent to replace Lewis — who is departing at the end of the school year — gave an update. Representatives said the search was on track for the board to review a first round of applicants mid-March. They also said additional community listening sessions had been scheduled for this week. The public can access that schedule here

Board member J.C. Romero criticized the firm for failing to prioritize non-English speakers in its listening sessions. Multiple firm members apologized and in this week’s scheduled listening sessions the website now denotes which sessions will have interpreters available. 

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...