The Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans charter school will proceed with its move to the vacant James Weldon Johnson school building in Carrollton for next year, after a cafeteria full of parents Monday night expressed their anxiety about safety at the location and frustration with repeated moves.
Shortly after moving into the Central St. Matthew UCC building this fall, Lycee leaders began discussing the concern in September that renovating more classroom space would cost more than they had realized, making it too small to hold the school during construction at the Priestley campus. Two months later, Lycee began exploring the possibility that the Johnson building on Monroe Street might be available for two or three years, and formally requested it in December.
After months of waiting, Lycee officials received word from the Orleans Parish School Board just before Mardi Gras break that their request for Johnson will be approved. On Monday, the Lycee board voted to authorize school CEO Keith Bartlett to enter negotiations with the OPSB and the Recovery School District for a lease for the building — but not before nearly two hours of discussion about the idea.
The Johnson move holds a number of advantages for the school, said Bartlett, board chair Michael Williams and board member Tim Gray. It has nearly 30 classrooms, more than enough space to consolidate grades 3-7 next year. Meanwhile, the OPSB will not charge Lycee rent, and Lycee has the opportunity to sublet the Central St. Matthew UCC space, saving the $10,000 monthly rent as well as any future renovation costs there — a figure that rises to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” over two or three years, Gray said.
The Johnson building is just a few blocks from Priestley, and could make use of the Priestley site easier during construction — especially if the Priestley gym can be renovated earlier, as is often discussed. Finally, moving into the neighborhood sooner gives Lycee an opportunity to start building a direct relationship with the neighborhood, Bartlett said.
“We thought it was a perfect opportunity to begin to know the neighbors and become part of the fabric of the community,” Bartlett said.
The neighborhood, however, gives some parents pause, and more than 40 people filled the cafeteria audience by the start of Monday’s meeting, with more arriving throughout. Last month, 29-year-old Michael Davis was shot to death near the corner of Hickory and Monroe streets near the Johnson building.
“The building is not the most attractive building in the city, and there are some incidents of shootings that have taken place in its vicinity, and some people are anxious about that,” Bartlett said.
The building already has a safety plan in place — including security cameras with closed-circuit monitors and other features — from Sophie B. Wright’s time there, officials said. School officials have begun discussing the cost of 12-hour armed security with the NOPD and other security companies, and will hire a security consultant to provide expert recommendations.
“We’re going to spend whatever money is necessary to secure the building. We’re not going to leave any kids vulnerable,” Williams said. “Does it mean we can build bullet-proof glass around the entire building? Probably not. Whatever experts tell us we need to secure the building, that’s what we will spend.”
While few parents in the audience complained directly about safety issues at the meeting, one woman said she and her kids were “shell-shocked” by Johnson’s appearance when they drove over the weekend. There was a burned out building next to it, and a group of men surrounded the car.
“It just feels more like jail than school,” the woman said. “I’m frustrated that I don’t have any other options right now, other than private school.”
Another Lycee parent, who described himself a 20-year-veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, said that police actions take place in every neighborhood in the city, and the best way to keep students safe is for the school to have a strong lockdown plan in the event of an emergency. Schools in even reputedly violent neighborhoods tend to reduce criminal activity immediately around them, while the nation’s most tragic incidents of school violence have happened in some of its most affluent communities.
“Location in and of itself is not always the biggest determiner of safety,” said the officer, who declined to give his name after the meeting because NOPD policy prevents it.
A group of nearby neighbors also attended the meeting to say they look forward to Lycee’s arrival, but also to defend the area’s reputation. They understand that the neighborhood still has problems — as so many in New Orleans do — but by and large it is a safe place to live. Houses are selling for $250,000 to $300,000 now, and families wouldn’t be moving in if they felt their children were threatened.
Some of the violence may have increased recently since the school has been vacant this year, they noted.
“The neighborhood is not this war zone that it’s being portrayed as in this meeting,” said Mitchell Sadler, who lives four houses from the Johnson building. “We’ll be good stewards of your future school.”
The school has for years been the site of a celebrated community garden, now operated by a group called “Okra Abbey” funded by the organization of Presbyterian churches in the area that includes St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian and First Presbyterian on South Claiborne. Layne Brubaker, an employee of the Presbytery, attended Monday night’s meeting and said they use the food from the garden to help address hunger in the community, and looked forward to working with Lycee to continue those efforts.
“It’s important to us to keep that community involvement,” Brubaker said.
More parents expressed disappointment that the school would be moving yet again, and asked the board to ensure that this move would be the last before Priestley — and do a better job of communicating changes to parents along the way.
“All you’ve heard from parents every year is that we just want to know things,” said parent Mary Dwyer.
Some board members apologized for any lack of communication the parents perceived, and others repeated their invitation that parents attend any meeting of the board’s facilities committee they could. Williams, the board chair, said that despite the repeated moves, Johnson may ultimately prove to be the best option that the school has gotten yet.
“Buildings are not falling out of the sky. Whole buildings are not out there waiting to be filled,” Williams said. He concluded, “I really do feel like Johnson is what we have been looking for for a number of years.”
See below for live coverage.