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

The NOLA Public Schools district’s annual “facility siting” process — when the district offers open school buildings to prospective operators — is underway, and six charter schools have applied for three soon-to-be vacant buildings in hopes of moving into better facilities, according to records obtained by The Lens. 

The annual turnover of charter schools is nothing new in the unique all-charter district. But this year, there appears to be a bit more competition for buildings in good condition. That follows two developments: Hurricane Ida, which left a number of district buildings with extensive damage; and declining enrollment at many New Orleans charter schools, which has prompted a review of both the number of authorized charter programs in the city and the district’s building inventory. The district is referring to the review, which could result in charter closures and consolidations, as “right-sizing.” 

One of the applicants seeking to move into a closing building, Homer A. Plessy Community School, is currently located in the historic McDonogh 15 school building in the French Quarter. It’s the only remaining school in the neighborhood, and Plessy’s interest in relocating has prompted fears the building could be decommissioned and sold to private developers. 

But it’s not yet clear what will become of the buildings currently occupied by the successful applicants. The process is administrative, led by NOLA Public Schools officials rather than the elected Orleans Parish School Board. Should administrators decide that schools vacated by the applicants are worth keeping in the district building inventory, they can offer them up through a second siting round. 

Four district-authorized charter schools will close in May — two due to poor academic performance and two in response to under-enrollment — opening up three district-owned school buildings. They are Live Oak on Constance Street, Gaudet on Haynes Boulevard, and Drew on St. Claude Avenue. The fourth school, James M. Singleton Charter School, operates in a privately owned facility and is not being made available to other district charter operators.

The district used a calculation called a “facility condition index” to determine which schools would be eligible to apply for the buildings. An FCI is calculated by comparing a building’s total deferred maintenance costs to its estimated replacement value. The district decided that the nine schools with an FCI higher than 55 percent could apply.

Applications for the buildings were due Feb. 25 and, according to the application, district officials will announce siting placements no later than March 18. 

Live Oak building

The most highly sought after building is the Live Oak facility, an 84,771 square-foot facility on Constance Street in Uptown that is by far the largest of the three available buildings. Firstline Schools officials decided to close Live Oak Academy, which currently occupies the building, at the end of the school year due to under-enrollment. 

International High School of New Orleans, Ben Franklin Elementary School (middle school), Morris Jeff Community School (middle school) and Audubon Charter School (4th-8th grade campus) are applying for Live Oak. 

The application from Audubon says the school needs additional space for its Montessori programming. Audubon teachers have also complained about the current school’s HVAC equipment, which they say is noisy and can make it difficult for students to hear their teachers. 

Audubon, is located at the old McDonogh No. 7 building on Milan Street, which the district plans to hand over to the Housing Authority of New Orleans for an affordable housing development. Audubon is already set to move into a new building: the Benjamin Banneker school building on Burdette Street. But school officials said they’d prefer Live Oak.

“Audubon Charter School has never been offered a facility that did not require significant capital investment in order to make it appropriate for our schools,” school officials wrote in its application

“The Live Oak building is larger and more appropriate for our needs, offering 29,000 more square feet than Banneker and increased student capacity,” the application reads, noting the school has had to veer from traditional Montessori setup in some cases due to space issues.

Ben Franklin Elementary School, an Uptown charter school, also says it needs additional space for its students and is seeking the Live Oak campus. The charter group has applied to relocate its Nashville Street campus students. 

Its application states its current campus is “undersized” and “outdated” for its middle school students. School officials also say they need additional space for special education and other specialized services, such as their counselors, to work with students. They also say the building is unfit for incorporating advancing educational technology.

International High School of New Orleans, a state-authorized (rather than NOLA Public Schools district-authorized) charter school, housed in the district-owned Rabouin building in the Central Business District, is also seeking the Live Oak building.

The high school’s application says the facility would allow for expanded programming and accessibility, noting its current 2nd and 3rd floors and some bathrooms are currently inaccessible to some students with physical disabilities. Officials also say the Live Oak building would offer improved HVAC and air quality.

Charles R. Drew Elementary building

The 68,512 square-foot Drew Elementary building  was recently renovated, with improvements completed in 2016. It has two applicants seeking to take over the facility from Arise Academy, which is set to close at the end of the school year.

Homer A. Plessy Community School, which is currently located at the old McDonogh 15 building in the French Quarter, is among them, a potential move that has generated some controversy. 

Among the main reasons they want to relocate, school officials say, is for additional space to provide special education services, expand their arts program and for expanded recreational space that they say the small French Quarter campus can’t offer. They cite facility issues as well.

“Often, water pressure is so low that toilets have difficulty flushing,” the application states. “Further, the sewage system does not flow out adequately, leading to our 2nd floor hallway smelling of feces whenever it rains.”

But it doesn’t appear all members of the Plessy community are on board with leaving the French Quarter. A petition to stay in the building has drawn more than 1,500 signatures. 

Last month, Plessy held a community meeting to discuss the possible move. According to a report by WDSU, several parents expressed frustration with school officials, saying they wanted to continue to send their children to a school in the French Quarter and were worried that the historic neighborhood’s last school could be sold and converted to condos.

A sale is a legal possibility. The district would first have to decide it no longer wants to operate the property, moving it to its surplus property list. Under state law, it would then have to offer it to charter school groups for lease or sale. If it gets no offers, it could then auction the building off.

The school’s application says it will seek additional community input if chosen to move to the Drew building, which is in Bywater.

“Should Plessy be recommended for relocation at the Drew building, the board will convene a special board meeting, receive a report from the strategic planning committee, hear public comment and vote to either accept or reject the siting,” the application reads.

Morris Jeff Community School has applied for both the Live Oak and Drew campuses, noting they would prefer the Drew campus and only applied for Live Oak as a backup. In the fall of 2021, their middle school students moved out of the school’s location on South Lopez Street to the Dent building, formerly named McDonogh 28, on Esplanade Avenue. Now, school officials are hoping to relocate middle school students to Drew.

They say the Drew building will allow them to relocate some central office functions, opening up more academic space at their South Lopez Street and Derbigny Street campuses, which are used for the school’s elementary and high school students, respectively.

In their application, officials state they have daily issues with plumbing and that loud HVAC equipment makes it difficult for students to hear teachers. They also cite water intrusion from Hurricane Ida and say they don’t have enough room to accommodate their projected growth in enrollment.

Frances Gaudet school building 

The final school seeking a new building is New Orleans Accelerated High School, an alternative high school, currently housed in the Bauduit building Uptown. Educators for Quality Alternatives, the school’s charter board, applied for the Gaudet building on Hayne Boulevard in New Orleans East. The school is the only applicant for the 62,613 square-foot facility which was renovated in 2017.  

According to the application, many of the school’s students live in New Orleans East, and school officials believe commuting to Uptown is a challenge.

“EQA students rely on RTA buses for transportation to school and the travel time from New Orleans East to Uptown can be a barrier to students consistently attending school,” it states. 

Officials believe attendance will rise if they move to Gaudet. They also say the campus could accommodate a permanent home for The Bridge, a therapeutic program for middle school students who’ve been expelled from other New Orleans schools. 

With the help of a Reimagine Schools Grant from the Louisiana Department of Education, officials say they want to build “wraparound services” such as job training, childcare and transitional housing for students.

“Most of our students who drop out cite lack of childcare, housing, or employment as their major barriers to attending school,” the application states. “By building a wraparound campus, we can take steps toward addressing these challenges.”

“These supports will be provided by a combination of community partnerships. The Gaudet facility is uniquely designed to facilitate this vision and is in an area of the city that we believe most needs these services,” the application states.

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...