State officials relented Wednesday in a long-running dispute over the future of two New Orleans high school buildings, announcing that Walter L. Cohen and Booker T. Washington will remain separate schools rather than merging on Booker T. Washington’s campus in Central City.
The move was a welcome outcome for the Cohen Alumni Association. The group has been pressing officials with the state-run Recovery School District for years to scrap plans for moving Cohen to the Washington site from the school’s own Uptown building on Dryades Street.
Alumni initially objected to the size of the planned campus at Booker T. Washington, which is being rebuilt, arguing that it would be too big in an era when smaller high schools are more in favor. Recently, they also have raised environmental concerns because the school was built on top of what had been the Silver City Dump through the 1930s.
“We’re happy as punch,” said Jim Raby, a 1955 Cohen graduate and the alumni association’s president. “That’s exactly what we’ve been fighting for the last several years.”
Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said Wednesday that KIPP New Orleans, one of the city’s biggest charter operators, approached the RSD with a plan that would resolve the dispute.
That group already was planning a new high school and said it would agree to run the school at the Booker T. Washington site.
At the same time, KIPP has decided to raise funds for a new building to house the 950 students at a kindergarten through eighth grade school called KIPP Believe. Right now, those students are split between temporary locations in the former Banneker School building Uptown and the Dunbar School building in Hollygrove.
That could free up money in the RSD’s construction plan to renovate or rebuild Cohen’s campus.
Dobard said the agreement also addresses the needs of the system, which does not have enough high school seats.
He said the new KIPP high school will open to freshmen next fall. There’s no definite timeline yet for KIPP’s new K-8 building.
KIPP spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said the group is confident in the environmental remediation taking place at the Washington site, which was found to have lead, mercury and arsenic levels between two and 24 times the allowable limits.
As for Cohen College Prep, Raby said the school now will wait to find out what’s next for its students. Dobard said in his letter Wednesday that Cohen’s existing building would be prioritized along with others when the district’s settlement with FEMA is completed, which is expected at about the end of the year.
Raby said the existing school has issues that prevent a renovation — it has no windows, for one thing — but that the current idea is to build a new building on the site’s green space and tear down the existing building once that is done.
Raby said he’s heard numbers thrown out as high as $30 million for that project and said things are still up in the air.
One thing’s for sure, though: Cohen is not going to the Booker T. Washington site.
“We’ve run a relay, and my leg was to make sure Cohen did not leave and go to Booker T. Washington,” Raby said, “and our leg of the relay is done.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.