Leaders of several growing charter schools are weighing the potential of moving into vacant former campuses in the Carrollton area, the former Carrollton courthouse and the old Priestley school, as the Orleans Parish School Board led tours of both on Wednesday in preparation to sell them and other campuses around the city.
State law gives charter schools the right of first refusal on any property that the Orleans Parish School Board is interested in selling, so charter leaders have been touring properties on the current surplus list this month. Last week, for example, the International School of Louisiana walked through the former Augustine building in Mid-City, and on Wednesday, the two Carrollton campuses were open.
The more prominent building of the two, the historic Carrollton courthouse, has a fairly tortured history as a school campus — Benjamin Franklin High School, Lusher and most recently Audubon have all used the site as a temporary campus over the years, and all have been glad to leave for better options. The so-called “portable” buildings around the main structure have been in place for decades, and are so deteriorated that Audubon parents complained that their children were developing respiratory problems from the poor air quality. Because of the building’s historic stature, any renovation would be subject to expensive guidelines, and school leaders also worry that the surrounding neighbors would oppose another school at the site.
Perhaps with Audubon’s recent experience as a backdrop, the courthouse drew less interest from charter leaders on Tuesday. Only one school, Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, showed up to tour it. With its $3 million price tag and a layout not intended for children, Lycee academic director Marina Schoen saw less to work with.
“This is a beautiful building, but how many classrooms could you put in here?” Schoen said.
By contrast, however, the Priestley school proved more intriguing to the school leaders. It has been closed for more than 25 years, opened up only once a year or so for interested officials to see, and the decades of neglect are evident. The entry way is still strewn with old workbooks and videocassettes, with an occasional cigarette carton or beer bottle mixed in the mess.
A large pool of water stagnates on the first floor, and ceiling tiles litter the hallway floors. Some rooms with boarded-up windows on the ground floor are completely dark, but the third floor has more light streaming in from broken windows and the holes in the roof.
Delegations from both the International School of Louisiana and Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, however, showed up to examine the property, and both saw potential in it.
“It looks like a mess, but come in here and shovel everything out, and it’s actually a pretty good structure,” said ISL board member John Wettermark, an architect.
The LFNO facilities group included Jim MacPhaille, a developer who has as much experience as anyone in New Orleans with renovating old, abandoned schools following his purchase and conversion of the former LaSalle school on Perrier Street into condominiums. The condition of Priestley is similar to that of the LaSalle building, MacPhaille said. It needs a new roof, and has termite damage, and thieves have stolen all the copper within reach. But if a structural engineer determines the foundation to be strong, he said, it could easily house a school again.
“I like it. It’s like LaSalle,” MacPhaille said. “It’s got good bones. … This neighborhood needs this. I think this is a viable option.”
Members of the surrounding neighborhood have long clamored for Priestley to be renovated and reopened. The school made an appearance on one of the drafts of the school-facilities master plan, and angered neighbors when it was dropped. With community interest in the site so high, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry sent a staffer to Wednesday’s tour as well.
“It would be nice for it to contribute to the community in some way,” said Megan Langhoff, a community liaison in Guidry’s office.
With the charter leaders’ tours of the surplus buildings wrapping up this month, the next step is to update the appraisals on the buildings, said OPSB Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Padian. Priestley’s $360,000 appraisal, for example, dates back to 2011 and may not reflect current land values or the condition of the building.
“If schools are interested, we want them to be able to make the most educated decision they can,” Padian said.
The school board will then set a timeline for charters to express their intent to purchase any of the buildings, and to make offers that are reasonable, Padian said. State law prevents the school board from handing the buildings over to charters as a gift, so the board will be looking for offers that do not stray much from the appraised value of the building, she said.
The most recent example of the process was ENCORE Academy’s purchase of the Shaw building in the Eighth Ward for $130,000 last year. Shaw was scheduled for sale at auction, but ENCORE leaders asked to buy it beforehand, and now are preparing to renovate it and move in.
The School Board will have final discretion on any sales. Any buildings not sold to charters will then go to a public auction open to private developers, she said, and she expects the entire process to be complete before the end of the year.
While the school officials waited on the charter leaders to complete their examination of Priestley, nearby resident Lester Clark came walking by. “Planning to do something with it?” he asked.
“Hope so,” Padian replied.
“It’s a waste to let it go down like that,” Clark said, walking on. “Make it an old folks home, anything.”
Clark said he attended school at Priestley, and remembers it as a crucial part of the neighborhood fabric when it was open. After it closed, he said, military training exercises were occasionally held inside, with soldiers dropping from helicopters and firing dummy rounds inside the building. But if he ever won the lottery, he said, the first thing he would do is buy his old school and bring it back to life.
“It kept the neighborhood alive and vibrant,” Clark said. “Right now, it’s nothing but a dead piece of weight.”