Significant funding gap remains
State officials said Wednesday that they have decided to scale back or redesign more than half a dozen school building projects around New Orleans because of steep construction costs, fewer dollars to spend than expected and shifting projections about the number of classroom seats the city will need.
Some schools that had been promised a new building will get a renovated one instead, while others expecting large-scale renovations will get less extensive repairs.
In some cases, officials have expanded projects so as to accommodate a rising population of elementary school students, while scaling back or eliminating others because of fewer-than-expected high school students.
In all, officials hope the changes they have already settled on will save about $118 million. But that’s less than half of the $330 million funding gap they face, and Patrick Dobard, head of the state’s Recovery School District, acknowledged that hard decisions lie ahead.
“We’re at the 19-yard line,” said Dobard, using the sort of football metaphor he favors when talking about the building plan and reiterating the district’s promise that all students will eventually get seats in a new or renovated building.
Choices about what to build and where are certain to be controversial.
Some of the projects still up in the air have been the subject of contentious debate for years, including Booker T. Washington, near the B.W. Cooper housing development, and John McDonogh, on Esplanade Avenue. Neither high school is operating right now, but both have active alumni groups with strong feelings about what happens to their alma maters.
In the case of Booker T. Washington, officials are considering whether to shift the school to a different site after encountering soil contamination. A move could potentially shave costs off of the $54.1 million project.
Officials haven’t spelled out the options for John McDonogh, which is scheduled for a $40.3 million renovation, but the district’s presentation for the state education board, which met in New Orleans on Wednesday evening, noted that several other schools will be operating in the same area, including Clark High School.
Clark is due for a $25 million renovation itself, but it could presumably be housed at the John McDonogh building in order to save money.
Any such plan could face stiff protests. A group of activists already has demanded that John McDonogh be handed back to the Orleans Parish School Board, which lost control of most campuses in the city after Hurricane Katrina.
The Recovery School District, after initially planning to close the school, invited a charter school operator called Future Is Now to operate out of the building in 2012, part of the broader transformation of the district into an all-charter school system. But the group failed to raise John McDonogh’s test scores off the bottom of state rankings, so the school is slated to close altogether during the upcoming renovations.
Another open question is where to place the elementary and middle schools that operate in the Carrollton area.
Kipp Believe College Prep on South Carrollton Avenue needs a new building, and the Choice Foundation is looking to expand beyond Lafayette Academy up the street.
Both would like to move into the Dunbar building, which is being rebuilt on Forshey Street in the Hollygrove neighborhood, but the Recovery District hasn’t made a final decision on which program will get it. Whichever one does not could presumably move into another school building in the area, Johnson, but that project won’t be completed as soon.
District officials are promising to resolve all of these questions within the next few months.
Dollars for building and renovating the city’s schools have grown scarce for a number of reasons. A master building plan laid out in 2011 used overly rosy expectations about average costs per square foot and overestimated how much funding the district could expect from special tax credits.
To date, the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board have completed or begun construction on 46 projects, leaving 19 in the design phase and 16 yet to begin. The hope is to have about 56,000 seats in new or renovated buildings by the end of 2016.