Orleans board wants students out of termite-damaged school

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --   The auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria have been marked off limits at Sophie B. Wright Charter School in New Orleans Thursday, March 21, 2013. Here students walk past caution tape placed outside one of the school buildings.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria have been marked off limits at Sophie B. Wright Charter School in New Orleans Thursday, March 21, 2013. Here students walk past caution tape placed outside one of the school buildings.

RSD officials recommend finishing year

Orleans Parish School Board members said Thursday that they want students moved out of Sophie B. Wright Charter School after they learned that termite damage had closed the school’s auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria and potentially threatened the structural integrity of the rest of the building.

But representatives from the Recovery School District, and the charter operator, who also attended the emergency board meeting, recommended beginning repairs immediately to ensure the building’s stability and letting the students finish out the year.

The board members present: Ira Thomas, Leslie Ellison, Cynthia Cade and Nolan Marshall unanimously passed a resolution to declare a public emergency at the school “due to facility conditions that pose both health and safety risks for Sophie B. Wright students and employees and that necessitate immediate repairs pursuant to the emergency provisions of the Louisiana Public Bid Law.”

Interim Superintendent Stan Smith said that it was important to move forward promptly with necessary repairs — shoring the termite-damaged trusses — to avoid further damage.

The building at 1426 Napoleon Ave. was built in 1910 and is scheduled for renovations to begin after the end of the school year.

The worst termite damage, which was determined to have been old and not due to any live termites in the building, was identified when architects and engineers began the forensic study in preparation for the renovations.

Sharon Clark, charter director at Sophie B. Wright, said that this week the students have been eating lunch from Dominoes and Subway — approved by state nutrition guidelines — as officials figure out an alternative.

Lona Hankins , RSD director of capital improvements, said that the school is slated for renovation precisely because of years of deferred maintenance.

Clark said that rotting floors were an issue when the charter operator took over the school in 2001.

Much of Thursday’s meeting was taken up by questions of who was to blame for the situation. In the fragmented landscape of school governance, fixing problems and identifying responsibility can be complex as with Wright, which is an RSD charter in an OPSB building.

Wright was one of the five schools that the RSD took over and chartered before Hurricane Katrina.

Herman Taitt, OPSB executive director of operations, said that it is the OPSB that is responsible for capital projects, but it is the charter operator who is responsible for regular maintenance.

Clark said that all required inspections had been performed and that their pest control contract deals with controlling live termites, not probing deeper into the building’s structure, which only happened as a result of preparation for renovations.

The termite contractors were at the building last week, Clark said, and found no sign of live termites — the issue is isolated to structural damage in areas not easily visible.

Also discussed was the concern, primarily from Ellison and Cade, that there would not be enough Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) participation because of some of the processes would be bypassed as a result of the public emergency declaration.

Ellison said it is an ongoing concern she has with the RSD.

Smith clarified that with an emergency project while they encourage DBE participation, the priority is to find a contractor who can mobilize the quickest.

Cade said she would be looking closely at the DBE participation percentage.

Even if the students are not in the building, Hankins advised that the building itself is in danger if temporary support structures are not installed quickly.

When Hankins passed around copies of photos taken of the trusses, the date on the photos — Nov. 14, 2012 — a contentious conversation began about why the issue was not addressed four months ago if things were so bad that it required a public emergency declaration.

“I can clearly see termite damage,” Cade said, looking at the photographs.

Hankins said the RSD was notified March 19, and the photos were taken as the engineers began their assessment to identify problem areas and then probe more deeply to determine the extent of the damage.

Hankins estimated the temporary measures would take about 45 days and could be done during off hours with minimal disruption.

But Marshall said that he was reluctant to spend money before knowing just how extensive the damage is and whether it even makes sense to renovate the building.

Hankins compared the sense of urgency in getting temporary support to stabilizing a patient prior to moving on to any next step — including further inspection.

Marshall asked about getting the students out immediately, as there are only a few months left in the year, and the stabilization process would take about as long.

Hankins said that there isn’t anywhere to move 500 students, and the engineers’ report did not indicate that the entire building needed to be vacated immediately. There’s a lack of swing space she said, and charter schools “don’t like to share with other charters because of the mixing of cultures.”

Next year, the plan is to move Wright students into James Weldon Johnson Elementary, which is closing because it had not met the state’s academic targets. Johnson students are guaranteed spots at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, another school with an “F” letter grade.

When Marshall suggested they could move to the L.B. Landry High School facilities, which have been intentionally kept under capacity to prepare for O. Perry Walker College and Preparatory High School to move in next year, Clark said “I might take my chances at Wright.”

Clark said there are “cultural wars that happen between schools,” and described a football game at Behrman Field at which the police were called to escort the Wright buses away because Walker and Landry kids were allegedly threatening fights because Wright was originally slated to move into Walker’s facilities. Clark said after that incident, they don’t play games at Behrman Field.

As Marshall shook his head, Clark said “I think it is nonsense too, sir, but it’s reality.”

The board added a recommendation to move the students out immediately, but they cannot force the RSD to do so.