In some classrooms at Audubon Charter School’s Milan Street campus, the air conditioner is so loud it shakes the whiteboard, and in others, it doesn’t work at all. The locks on the bathroom doors frequently malfunction, trapping students inside, and the school had to give up its library to squeeze in another classroom.
After three Audubon middle school students recited a litany of discomfort Saturday morning before the school’s governing board, a top Orleans Parish School Board official promised to dedicate emergency funding within a week to some of the most pressing problems. A long-term solution to the woes of Audubon’s “temporary” campus, however, is still beyond the horizon.
The students’ complaints came in the form of letters written to individual Orleans Parish School board members, read aloud before the Audubon Charter School governing board at their April meeting on Saturday morning.
“Did you know that the paint on our walls is peeling, exposing the lead paint beneath?” asked a sixth-grader named Lucy Gagon in her letter. “It’s not going to be the school’s fault when we get lead poisoning. … If you’re aware of any of this, why haven’t you done anything about it?”
The problems with the air conditioning were a repeated theme in each of the letters, as well as the lack of suitable play space on the blacktop outside. The students also noted inadequacies in the building itself, such as walls and ceilings so thin that students are constantly distracted by noise from adjoining rooms.
“Please do anything and everything you can about our school’s current state and improve the lives of our students,” Ella Forest concluded.
Eric Seling, the new chief operating officer for the Orleans Parish School Board, took notes from the front row of the audience as the students spoke. The OPSB has only two sources of primary money for repairs, he explained. First, the remaining money from the $2 billion settlement with FEMA for damage related to the flooding after Hurricane Katrina is still being used for new buildings and full renovations, he said. Second, voters approved the creation of a facilities fund that will capture money from retiring bonds, but that won’t be availale until 2021, he said.
Until then, the OPSB can only afford emergency repairs, Seling said. but some of the things the students mentioned would qualify for that — specifically, the air conditioning problems, the faulty door locks and perhaps the waterproofing issues. Seling said he would begin looking into those issues this week.
One parent in the audience asked about the lack of a library, but Seling says he doesn’t think the emergency funds could pay for finding more space for that.
“I would agree that it’s tough to have a school without a library. I can’t argue otherwise, but it’s tough to say it was an emergency,” Seling said.
The OPSB also needs to pay more attention to oversight of the work it approves, said board member Eva Alito. At Milan, the OPSB replaced the boiler and the chiller before Audubon moved in, but not the air handler — which is now causing problems that the students are suffering from.
“That goes to someone looking over the work and planning it,” Alito said.
On a longer term, it’s clear that the Milan Street building is “bursting at the seams,” he said, but a permanent solution will not likely come until the OPSB completes its next master-planning process, which could take as much as three years.
“It’s not a cheerful place to be, but I’d rather be honest with everybody in this room,” Seling said.
A primary goal of his, Seling said, is to make the building-assignment process more transparent. In September, he will release a list of all the school buildings that will become available for the 2018-19 school year, and allow all school leaders to make their requests. The OPSB will then evaluate those requests publicly on criteria based on both need and merit, and make decisions by January.
As part of that process, the OPSB is trying to make sure that all the new and refurbished buildings are being used to their full capacity, Seling said. If larger, newer buildings aren’t being filled when a school like Audubon is so crammed into an older building like Milan Street, that’s a problem that should be corrected, he said.
Asked about any Uptown campuses that may become open, Seling said he now believes the coveted Allen building (at Nashville and Loyola avenues) will be available in 24 to 30 months. First, Success Prep will move out of the Wicker building; then the Wicker building will be demolished; and OPSB will build a new campus there for Sci High to move into.
How the Allen building will be assigned — when Audubon and Lusher have hotly debated competing requests for it in the past — is yet to be determined, Seling said. But during that time, Seling said he is keenly aware of the deficiencies at the Milan Street building.
“To the parents here today, I hear from probably no one more than your administrative team about your needs, so they are certainly doing their job representing you,” Seling said.
To read our live coverage of Saturday’s meeting, see below.