Lycee Francais purchase of former Priestley school gets first approval from Orleans Parish School Board

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The front door of the Priestley school building in west Carrollton. (Robert Morris,

The front door of the Priestley school building in west Carrollton. (Robert Morris,

The Orleans Parish School Board property committee recommended that Lycee Francais be approved to purchase the former Priestley campus Thursday, sending the proposal to the full school board next week for what could be final approval.

The Priestley campus is one of seven former school sites declared surplus by the Orleans Parish School Board in May, and state law requires that vacant property be made available to charter groups before it can be sold at public auction. This month, the OPSB received one bid for each of three campuses — Lycee Francais bid $425,500 for the Priestley site on at 1619 Leonidas Street appraised at $425,000, the Homer Plessy school offered $400,000 for the Hansberry site on Clouet Street appraised at $535,000, and New Orleans College Prep offered $250,000 for the $1.5 million Hoffman Elementary site.

On Thursday afternoon, the Orleans Parish School Board property committee discussed each of the bids, starting with recommendations from administrators they accept the offers from the Lycee and Plessy groups, and to defer the College Prep offer for further negotiations to resolve the disparity between the appraisal and the College Prep offer. After about an hour of discussion, the property committee agreed to each of those recommendations.

The recommendations are scheduled to be taken up by the full Orleans Parish School Board on Tuesday. No bids were received for the former Carrollton courthouse, likely sending it to public auction.

Lycee | The discussion about Lycee echoed the public debate taking place in the Carrollton neighborhood over the last few months — a promise by the French-immersion school to serve the neighborhood, and protests by members of the P-Town Project that other uses for the property would better serve the community.

Britt Gondolfi, a leader of the P-Town Project, said she had collected 560 signatures on a petition in favor of converting Priestley into a “multi-use educational space that reflects the most insightful and innovative strategies for how to heal communities.” Because the school’s all-French curriculum makes it near-impossible for new students to enter above first grade, the school will not benefit the neighborhood, she said.

“Closures of black schools in black neighborhoods are a result of institutionalized racism that seeks to profit off of turning neighborhoods over in real-estate markets that do not value people, but only what profits we can make from these people’s homes,” Gondolfi told the committee. “There are great forces at work and you are one of the players in this game that will determine the fate of our neighborhood.”

Jerry Speir of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association said Lycee has been recruiting students in the neighborhood and has promised to provide transportation to its other campuses while Priestley is under renovation. More importantly, Lycee represents the first chance for children to return to the campus in three decades, and he fears that if the sale is rejected, the property will remain blighted for decades to come, he said.

“Now there is a real opportunity to put a school there — a charter school with resources to do it,” Speir said.

Questions from the OPSB members were brief: Ira Thomas asked if Lycee’s renovation would be subject to public bid law (they are), and whether they are required to follow the OPSB process for disadvantaged business (they are not). Lycee CEO Keith Bartlett, however, said he believed a disadvantaged-business effort was in the spirit of the school’s intentions, and promised to discuss it with the board.

Board member Woody Koppel, who represents the area, spoke only briefly to promise one neighbor he would convene a meeting with community members about the sale.

Left unmentioned during the discussion was a second bid competing with Lycee’s offer by a private developer, Redmellon, which is currently building the $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Redmellon owner Neal Morris said in a statement Thursday that he bid $551,000, and that he planned to develop the property as a school — making him not only eligible to bid but also the high bidder on the property.

“Requiring that a school be made available to Charter groups is not the same thing as saying only Charters can bid. Multiple Attorney General opinions and other statutes require a public bid process open to any party, not just Charter schools,” Morris said in a statement. “I think we were the high bidder and we want to buy the building. But if the OPSB wants to be cautious and rebid the school then that would probably be acceptable. If we don’t end up getting it that’s fine. At least it was done correctly and the OPSB will receive more money.”

The OPSB did not discuss the Redmellon bid directly, but board members did ask several questions about the process for giving charter schools the first chance to buy the property. That provision is probably in the law, the OPSB real-estate attorneys replied, because the law also requires charters to make the property available back to the school board if they don’t end up using it — a provision that can’t be applied to a private entity.

College Prep | Ben Kleban, CEO of the New Orleans College Prep charter group, appeared with substantial support from the Hoffman Triangle Neighborhood Association for his offer of $250,000 to buy the land to build a school on, likely a replacement for their current campus at Sylvanie Williams nearby. Kleban said the $1.5 million OPSB appraisal for the land was likely too high because it compared the property to nearby commercial or industrial uses that would not be allowed by the zoning there, and he promised to give the land back to the OPSB if College Prep was unable to develop a school there.

Board attorneys, however, cautioned that agreeing to a sale with such a major disparity in price could be viewed as an illegal donation of public property to New Orleans College Prep. They recommended the OPSB and College Prep create a legally-binding “Cooperative Endeavor Agreement” that outlines what additional benefits the public will receive in exchange for the low price, and the committee agreed with the suggestion.

To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.

Live Blog Orleans Parish School Board property committee — Sept. 11, 2014

8 thoughts on “Lycee Francais purchase of former Priestley school gets first approval from Orleans Parish School Board

  1. The case of Lycee is hardly an example of the closure of a black school. If its been closed for thirty years, this is an example of a revival. That woman is nuts. Her vanity project obstructs real improvement and progress and her senseless rhetoric breeds needless disharmony.

    • Redmellon is owned by Neal Morris. Neal Morris is a parent of two current students and an architect for Ecole Bilingue. It is a well known fact that EB is and has been looking for a permanent building as they currently lease buildings. Neal Morris is actively involved in this process. Presumably, the intended occupant of the Priestly building is actually Ecole Bilingue. EB is a private bilingual school. Woody Koppel, a member of the OPSB, is a very good personal friend of Neal Morris.

      • I doubt it will get to a public bid process (which Redmellon would be eligible to bid in)- state law says surplus schools must be offered to charter schools first and only opened up to other bids (including private schools) if no charter schools are willing to pay fair market value for it.
        The P-Town project falls under the same constraints. They can’t even bid for it until it goes through the charter-school offer period without any bids/offers.
        Lycee’s bid seems likely to go through during this, the charter offer period.
        Everything else is just idle chatter and useless speculation… even if someone else comes in and offers the OPSB huge amounts of money or claims they want to use the building for whatever purpose- the OPSB doesn’t have a choice as far as state law goes. They’ve got a charter school who is offering the appraised price, so the charter school has first dibs. They aren’t legally allowed to turn the charter school down and sell it to any entity that isn’t a charter school.

      • Mostly true! Red melon also seems to have offered the taxpayers over $100k more money. Neal has a established track record of delivering high quality “anchor” type renovations in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Redmellon’s management of an EB purchase would likely be a huge win for the neighborhood, on the other hand, Jim McPhaille ihas a leading role in Lycee’s property search, and he also has an established track record of real estate deals done well. That would be a win for the neighborhood too. The only real risk to everyone involved here is Ira Thomas and his DBE (Hamp’s). If either of those two are involved all parties would be wise to ask the IG to mediate their participation from day one. That is an alliance begging for an investigation.

        • Thank you for your kind words about my work Boathead. I should really point out that E.B. is no longer looking for space to expand their campus because they found it. (They entered into a long term lease for two additional properties on Gen. Pershing and they are currently going through the Conditional Use Process. A Contractor has been selected and work will begin early next year.) E.B. is a small
          school that could not afford to renovate Priestly and my high bid for the property has nothing to do with E.B.. They already found space to expand long-term and it is not Priestley.

          But my high bid is legal. While there is legislation that says that the school board should make vacant schools available for Charters, there is more specific legislation (and
          Attorney General opinions) that require the board to follow the Public Bid law and sell to the highest bidder. What the school board is doing is cherry picking one statute and deciding to ignore the other ones. The usual course of action when there are poorly drafted, conflicting statutes is to ask the A.G. for an
          Opinion. Doing so saves litigation expense down the road. As the high bidder I will certainly have standing to sue but if not me there will be other bidders for other schools
          down the road and OPSB will have to deal with it at some point. There are arguments for both sides. Acting as if the law is clear is certainly is to be expected from Lyceé boosters but I would hope the OPSB recognizes that their
          role is not to cheerlead for a particular group but rather to follow the law. Lyceé is a fine school and I am sure they would do an admirable job. But they were not the
          high bidder, I was, and I believe there are numerous other Charter schools that would love to operate a community school at that location if they had the expertise to pull off the rehabilitation. That is where I come in and I would encourage these schools to reach out
          to me. In the meantime we will see what
          happens. OPSB can “do it quickly” for Lyceé
          or they can “do it right” and ask the Attorney General for an Opinion and rebid
          the school. And again, thank you for
          your nice words about my work.

    • Tracey, I advise you to think before you speak. The disharmony is already present. Giving voice to injustice is not a vanity project.

  2. So… is the claim that the OPSB can legally opt to refuse a public (charter) school’s offer and sell a surplus school building to someone other than a public school in their city?
    That seems like a pretty bizarre oversight in the law if that is the case- I can’t imagine that the legislators intended for surplus public school buildings to go to developers over public schools in their district (as obviously, private developers will be able to outbid the vast majority of public charter schools or at minimum drive up the bids such that excess money gets spent by the schools that would otherwise be spent on the children’s education).

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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