Jan 042011

A lack of specifics on the proposed reuse of the shuttered Priestley school campus frustrated two Carrollton area activists at a Tuesday evening meeting about the future of New Orleans school buildings in the Recovery School District.

“It’s a spectacular piece of property, and the amount of imagination that’s been directed toward what ought to be done with the property has been zilch,” Robbie Robertson, who lives a few blocks from the old school, said after the meeting.

The draft master plan for school assignments in the Recovery School District calls the old Priestley site on Leonidas to be renovated and then become the new home for Johnson Elementary, currently housed two blocks away on its own Monroe Street campus. The Johnson campus would then essentially be mothballed, according to the plan, which was the subject of a public hearing for residents of City Council District A on Thursday.

Betty DiMarco, a member of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association, asked during the meeting for a clearer timetable on when that move might take place.

“I would like a definite date for Johnson to start moving into the school,” DiMarco said. “When is the community going to start having some input on if the building is restored as a historical building or torn down?”

Johnson is operated by the Recovery School District, but the Priestley site is owned by the Orleans Parish School Board, and DiMarco said she is concerned that tension between the two entities is hobbling negotiations. If Johnson truly is going to occupy the Priestly site, that move ought to be a high priority, DiMarco said, because it is the only open-admission, non-charter public school in the neighborhood. Her comments were among only a handful Tuesday evening that drew applause from the dozens of parents, school officials and education activists in the Langston Hughes School cafeteria for the meeting.

Responding to DiMarco’s question, Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas said the Priestley campus is slated for the next phase of school renovations, which will be expedited because of the $1.8 billion settlement for Katrina-related damages with FEMA.

Priestly had also been the intended home for the Priestley School of Architecture and Construction, a charter school that opened soon after Hurricane Katrina, but it has been shuffled around from site to site around the city and is now poised to surrender its charter back to the Orleans Parish School Board because of financial difficulties.

“There’s no way we can put Priestley high school in the old Priestley building,” Vallas noted.

After the meeting, DiMarco and Robertson said they took little comfort in the district’s plans. The building has been closed for 20 years, they said, and renovations are likely to take another four, putting Priestley back into use in 2015.

“They can change their minds like they’ve done on everything else,” DiMarco said. “I’ll believe it when they start working there.”

Though they both said they supported the community’s desire for Johnson to move in, neither said they were sure Priestley’s best use would be as an elementary school. Robertson noted his concern that “they’re getting ready to put this tiny elementary school in this huge piece of property” that would be better suited for something like an art college.

DiMarco said she had been part of a community group that in 2010 had been so tired of seeing the school building lie empty that they began soliciting other uses for the property, and found a developer that wanted to transform it into a mixed-use educators’ village of sorts that would house Teach for America’s local administration and other nonprofits and also have apartments for the project’s teachers. Neighbors had begun getting excited about that prospect, DiMarco said, until the Recovery School District designated the site for Johnson and essentially nixed any redevelopment.

Other Carrollton-area schools under the purview of the Recovery Area School District include Banneker Elementary in the Black Pearl and KIPP Believe College Prep on South Carrollton, but neither are slated for change in the district’s master plan and they were not mentioned Tuesday night. A representative of Lafayette Academy, a charter school nearer the Fontainebleau neighborhood, encouraged district officials to consider seeking partners in the medical and social-work fields that could help defray the cost of renovations in exchange for space on school campuses.

Other Uptown schools operated by the Recovery School District are in City Council District B, which will have its own public hearing at Andrew Wilson Elementary School at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Many of the comments at Tuesday’s meeting came from people associated with the new Morris Jeff school, while others addressed more general issues with the district’s plans. For full coverage of these comments, review our live coverage from the meeting by clicking in the box below.

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