More than a decade after officials began trying to acquire a sports field for the new Booker T. Washington High School on Earhart Boulevard, the Orleans Parish School Board is ready to move forward with a controversial land swap with the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
First, though, it faces a lawsuit seeking to block the deal.
At a committee meeting Tuesday, School Board officials said they would begin negotiations with HANO to trade the historic McDonogh No. 7 school building in Uptown for a vacant field near the new Booker T. Washington building.
That school, now housed on Third Street, is due to move this fall to the site where it operated for decades before it was closed after Hurricane Katrina and largely demolished.
The vacant land, which has since been remediated, was formerly part of the Silver City dump in the old B.W. Cooper housing complex area.
Sue Robertson, the school district’s executive director of capital planning, told board members the deal was now possible because officials with two local charter schools who had expressed interest in acquiring the McDonogh 7 building on Milan Street decided it wasn’t worthwhile to buy or lease it.
Right now, the roughly 140-year-old building is occupied by Audubon Charter School students in grades four to eight. Officials say the building will become vacant in 2021, when Audubon moves to its permanent home in the former Banneker School building on Burdette Street.
For 12 years, Orleans Parish public school officials have been trying to figure out how to s…
By law, the district was required to give other local charter schools the first right of refusal when placing the Milan Street property on its surplus list.
Last month, officials with Bricolage Academy and Crescent City Schools both “withdrew their interest” after first inquiring about the building, district spokeswoman Ambria Washington said.
Neighbors who want the building to remain a school, however, are upset about the prospect of a trade that would allow HANO to move forward with plans to build a mixed-income housing complex on the historic site.
In a lawsuit filed May 9, members of the Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association argued that the School board wasn’t following its own policy in putting a school building on the surplus list while it’s still occupied. They also said the district didn’t give charter schools — including those that might not be open yet — enough time to decide if they want a building for use in two years.
The lawsuit followed months of complaints by neighbors who said the district wouldn’t be getting a fair trade for the vacant field abutting Booker T. Washington, which was built on a former toxic waste site that had to be remediated because barium, lead, mercury and arsenic were found as deep as 15 feet below the surface.
The McDonogh 7 building is appraised at about $3.9 million, while the land under it is valued at $1.1 million, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor's Office.
HANO’s property has been appraised for nearly $2.9 million, although spokeswoman Lesley Thomas said the agency has also spent nearly $5 million to replace the soil on the field.
“All of us who live in that area are extremely upset with how the OPSB has been handling this,” said Marengo Street resident Jack James, citing a “disregard for the neighbors who love the school, the building and our neighborhood.”
School Board member Ben Kleban, however, believes the deal is worth it if it means Booker T. Washington students will get much-needed athletic and play space.
"Children deserve to have a full educational experience. That includes extracurricular, high school activities, athletics," Kleban said, adding that acquiring the HANO-owned lot is “the only way OPSB staff could finally figure out a way to get this done. We owe that to these children."
The two sides are scheduled to face off before Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott on Tuesday at a hearing on a proposed preliminary injunction that would prevent the district from trading or selling the McDonogh 7 property before offering it to future charter groups.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect age for the McDonogh 7 property.