As Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans begins to firm up a construction timetable on its planned renovation of the Priestley campus in Carrollton, leaders of the charter school are recommending a five-year extension of their lease of the nearby Johnson campus as well, officials said Monday night.
The original lease with the Recovery School District for the Johnson campus on Monroe Street was two years, but it included an option to request an extension for an additional five years — essentially, the remainder of the time until Lycee Francais must renew its charter, said Tim Gray, a member of the school’s facilities committee. As Recovery School District properties continue to be transferred back to the Orleans Parish School Board, Gray said the facilities committee believes Lycee should go ahead and request that lease extension immediately.
In the meantime, Gray said the facilities committee has also been striving to set a firm construction timeline on the Priestley project itself. Construction itself is expected to take 12 to 16 months, and the total overall costs — including some of the early rehabilitation and architect’s fees that have already been paid — are now projected at $13.5 million.
The school believes it can secure about $3.5 million in historic tax credits, but the remainder must be either raised through a capital campaign or financed with a bank loan. Until the lawsuit over funding for charter schools at the Louisiana Supreme Court is resolved, however, no bank will give the school a loan, Gray said, making it very unlikely that the Priestley project could be financed and built before the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
“If the Supreme Court ruling came today and we secured funding in a month, would we really want to go straight to construction?” Gray asked. “Even if the Supreme Court ruling came down, I’d be hard pressed to vote to start immediately.”
Another consideration, he said, is that Lycee’s high school population at that point will only consist of 33 students in the ninth grade — hardly enough to justify a new building on their own, since the Johnson and Patton buildings could likely hold Lycee’s entire student population until at least the 2022-23 school year. There is no reason to delay the Priestley renovation that long, however, Gray said, making the 2020-2021 school year the most likely year for Lycee to move into the building with a projected 100 students in ninth and tenth grades.
“We’re committed to do it as quickly as the budget and needs would allow,” said board member David Amoss. “It very much seems the school year starting in ’19 is not possible at this point, but we don’t want to say that until we have a much more concrete timeline.”
The board did not take action on any of the facilities committee’s deliberations Monday night. On the Johnson lease, board chair Michael Williams said he will add a formal vote on the issue to the agenda of the next Lycee board meeting, likely in about two weeks.
On the Priestley timeline, Williams said no decision is imminent, especially given the uncertainty around the Supreme Court lawsuit. For now, Williams said, he is more concerned with simply getting the current considerations out to the public.
“This board is committed to building and renovating Priestley and having a high school there. The question is how to get from here to there,” Williams said. “Better to get the idea of Priestley out to the public so families can start making plans, because we don’t have all the answers yet.”
Lycee’s current student population is 824 students, and 960 are projected for next year after accounting for a new class of 125 incoming kindergarten students. The state has also approved Lycee to add 20 more seats for children from at-risk families to its 4-year-old preschool program, bringing it to a total of 60 at-risk seats paid by the state and 20 tuition-based seats, which are given preference to current students’ younger siblings.
The school’s search for a new CEO to replace Keith Bartlett after his retirement this summer is also proceeding in earnest now, said board member Ben Castoriano. The CEO-search committee has received 20 applications, and has begun making contact with those applicants. No deadline has been set to close the application period yet, but may be approaching now that a significant number of candidates are being identified, he said.
“We certainly are trying to move with speed if possible,” Castoriano said.