With school money allocated to buildings, attention turns to which programs get them

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With an apparent consensus in support of the latest plan to distribute what’s left of $2 billion in FEMA money to rebuild and repair New Orleans schools, attention is now quickly shifting to the programs will receive the school buildings once the money has been spent.

The new plan scales back the size of some schools to be built, finds new revenue sources and cuts cost elsewhere to spread the money to every school in the city, either through new construction; full renovation or exterior refurbishment to bring every campus to a standard of “warm, safe and dry.”

“Not every school is a new building, not every school is a gut-renovation, but every school is made whole for education,” said Recovery School District superintendent John White.

But even as education advocates began thanking the state officials for redrawing the plan, discussion turned to control of the buildings themselves. The Orleans Parish School Board voted to accept the plan Thursday night, for example, but first added an amendment essentially saying that no building could be given to a Type 2 charter unless the Orleans Parish School Board declared it surplus first. That amendment, explained board member Woody Koppel after the meeting, ensures that the district has ample room for schools like Benjamin Franklin Elementary that are “bursting at the seams” before any buildings are given away to new programs starting from scratch with just a few classes.

Part of the Recovery School District’s promises include a decision on the permanent home for every school program by the end of December, and representatives of several schools sought specifics from White on that point. Janice Dupuy, principal of Audubon Charter School, reminded officials that the Carrollton courthouse building that currently houses Audubon’s upper grades was intended as a temporary solution, and said she looks forward to finding out in December where those students will move if a historical renovation of the Carrollton campus is deemed too difficult.

Speaking on behalf of the Walter L. Cohen alumni association, Irma Muse Dixon said she was concerned that officials intend to combine Cohen into the new Booker T. Washington school. Not only would traffic pose a logistical problem, she said, but such a large high school in a high-poverty area will attract violence. The association “vehemently” opposes such a plan, Dixon said, urging that Cohen be renovated and retain its own name instead.

“Large high schools, particularly those serving low-income students in urban areas, have disproportionately lower achievement and higher incidences of violence
than smaller schools serving similar student populations,” Dixon read from a resolution passed by the association.

White replied that the Cohen building on Dryades Street won’t go away, but compared it to O. Perry Walker, where only minor renovations will be done until the long-term use of the facility can be determined. The RSD will be meeting with the alumni association soon, White said.

“There has no decision about merging schools, about which schools go in which building, in any case,” White replies.

While the latest plan will make each school inhabitable and structurally sound, it will not provide for the long-term maintenance or improvement of the campuses, said Orleans Parish School Board superintendent Darryl Kilbert. In December, the board will create a commission tasked with creating a long-range plan for facilities in New Orleans.

The meeting also included comments on the new plan from other schools around the city, such as supporters of moving Johnson Elementary to the old Priestly site in Carrollton. To read our live coverage of the meeting, click “Replay” in the box below.

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