Schools chief acknowledges building plan in New Orleans East is on the rocks

It’s been one fight after another in deciding how to spend the $2 billion that’s going into rebuilding public schools in New Orleans. In the latest blow-up, the state-run Recovery School District, which controls most of the cash, is trying to buy an old BellSouth call center on Bundy Road near I-10 for a combined elementary and high school.

But RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard had to acknowledge this week that community opposition has forced the district to reconsider. In his first appearance before the City Council as the district’s leader, Dobard started referring to the controversial plan — which has not been officially killed — in the past tense.

“We were able to not spend any additional money, and we would have served 1,000 more kids,” Dobard said, noting that the latest demographic projections show the district underestimated by about 3,000 the number of students who will need classrooms in New Orleans East over the next few years.

“The community, represented by a group out in the East, decided that they don’t want to have a school there,” Dobard continued. “But we’re still saying that the question remains unanswered: How will we serve together 3,000 more seats that will be coming online in New Orleans East?”

The group that opposes Dobard’s proposal is the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, an alliance of neighborhood organizations commonly known as ENONAC.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell told Dobard that she attended the ENONAC meeting this month where the issue came up and said she saw where the group was coming from.

“I sat there in the meeting and I listened,” Hedge-Morrell said. “I heard that they did not embrace the idea of having elementary and high school in the same building. I think that it doesn’t really matter what part of the city you go into, that is a traditional thing, and sometimes you can’t buck the traditions of New Orleans.”

Another objection, she recalled, had to do with size. The BellSouth building would accommodate almost 2,000 students. Hedge-Morrell, a former principal herself, noted, “New Orleans has never been successful with large-population schools.”

“Sometimes what happens is we get bright ideas and we can’t understand why everyone else isn’t jumping on the bandwagon,” she said. “But you’ve got to stop a minute and hear their fears and their concerns.”