Like parents, educators and community members at so many schools around the city, supporters of James Weldon Johnson Elementary in Carrollton are increasingly frustrated with the latest plans for their campus.
The public school system is embarking on a $2 billion three-phase to improve school facilities across New Orleans, and over the next month will be finalizing plans on how to distribute the money across the city. On Saturday, the latest version of these plans were presented at a public meeting at Xavier University, and among the new information was that renovations are no longer planned at the long-vacant Priestley High School site.
The Priestly building was still being promised to Johnson Elementary as recently as a community meeting in January, but a Recovery School District official explained at Saturday’s meeting that moving Johnson is no longer a priority. The Sewerage and Water Board announced in late March a federal project to cease transporting poisonous chlorine gas through Johnson’s neighborhood, ending the hazard that had made the Johnson site a questionable location for a school, said Lona Edwards Hankins, the RSD executive director for capital projects.
Now, Johnson can be renovated instead of moving it down the street to Priestley, Hankins said: “There’s no need to move the Johnson school away from that risk.”
The change in plans drew fiery opposition from members of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association, who consider support for the quickly-improving Johnson school as one of their group’s primary goals.
Anne Wolfe Nicolay, the association’s new president, described a litany of shortcomings in the schools, such as lack of health clinics or swimming programs in a city surrounded by water. She demanded the details of the renovations now planned for Johnson, and insisted that the school district stop neglecting the Priestley campus.
“If you are not going to use it, when is it going to auction? There have been plans ad nauseum. What is the process going to be to get rid of these properties?” Nicolay asked. “It has been blighted for 25 years. This is criminal. With the blight situation we have in New Orleans, this is unthinkable.”
Association member and education advocate Betty DiMarco blasted the district’s stated process of choosing which school buildings to renovate without consideration for what educational programs are currently using them, and castigated the change in plans for Priestley as yet another broken promise.
“All of a sudden, without any input, you’ve changed that,” DiMarco said. “You are sitting up on a lectern, looking down on the little guy on the floor. We’re supposed to be making comments to you, but we get no feedback, which causes disillusionment in the community.”
Wanda Brooks, the principal of Johnson, sat throughout the meeting without addressing the district officials, and said afterward she didn’t want to discuss the change in plans for Johnson specifically until she learned more about it. Brooks did say she was fortunate to have such strong supporters in the neighborhood.
“I think this process is intended for community input,” Brooks said. “I hope they will hear the dissatisfaction from the community. Our community was promised certain things, and they constantly asked, ‘Are you sure we don’t have to worry about this?’ It looks like things have changed.”
The general optimism about the steadily rising test scores in New Orleans public schools is tempered to a degree by broad dissatisfaction with this next step of renovating and reassigning school campuses, judging from nearly two-hours of almost universally critical comments at Saturday’s meeting. Parents, educators and neighborhood leaders from schools and areas as diverse as Audubon Charter, Morris Jeff Charter, the Bunny Friends Neighborhood, Algiers, the Lower Ninth Ward and other communities all complained about their wishes for school assignments seeming to fall on deaf ears.
“This has got to be a community process. You have got to listen to us before you give us recommendations on how you spend our money,” said Louella Gibbons, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who was speaking from the audience. “People Uptown are telling you it doesn’t work for them. The people in the Ninth Ward tell you it doesn’t work for them. Please tell me who this plan is working for. All these people in line will tell you the same thing – it’s not working.”
To most of these complaints, district officials responded by encouraging speakers to bring their issues up at individual meetings for each Orleans Parish School Board in the city. The two Uptown-based districts will meet as follows:
- District 6, which runs from Audubon to Carrollton and includes Johnson, Audubon, Priestley and others, will be discussed at 6 p.m. Monday, July 18, at McMain High School, 5712 S. Claiborne.
- District 5, which runs from Central City to near Audubon, will be discussed at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, at the Dryades YMCA, 2220 O.C. Haley Boulevard.
A full list of citywide meeting times can be found at rebuildingnolaschools.com.
The decisions in the plan so far are not final, but represent a working document, Hankins said after the meeting, and if any changes are made, they will have to be offset by savings elsewhere in the plan.
“We have a fixed amount of dollars, and we’ve projected every penny,” Hankins said. “If somebody says, ‘Not this school,’ then which school?”