Lycée Français, a New Orleans charter school, is the proud new owner of a $425,000 fixer-upper of a building that’s been empty for more than 22 years, and the neglect is apparent.
The French-curriculum charter school bought the former Alfred C. Priestley School from the Orleans Parish School Board. But Priestley won’t be ready for students this coming year — or anytime soon.
The 77-year-old school at 1619 Leonidas St. requires at least a $9 million overhaul to be student-ready, and perhaps double that. A 2008 report from the School Board concluded: “The facility has extensive damage, and most is beyond repair.”
It is a problem that charter schools in New Orleans may be dealing with more and more in the coming years. The public school population continues to grow, but nearly all of the new or renovated school buildings in Orleans Parish have been promised to existing charters. The Orleans Parish School Board has been authorizing new charters — the Lycée was authorized by the state — without being able to promise them a facility.
Despite the grim report, Lycée CEO and Principal Keith Bartlett is hopeful the school can relocate to the Priestley site in two or three years. He said the board is forming committees to address such things as vetting developers and plotting a vision for the campus.
Right now, the 466-student school is split across two campuses and is adding fifth grade in the fall. Lycée’s founders envisioned a kindergarten through 12th-grade school, and it has been adding a grade each year.
The school used an $800,000 line of credit to purchase the Priestley building, Bartlett said. They also will draw from that line of credit to patch the roof, secure the site and remove asbestos and lead while they form a long-term plan.
But the cost to renovate Priestley will be much higher than that.
Estimates the Recovery School District received from Waggonner and Ball Architects in 2012 put renovation costs at a minimum of $9 million, and up to $21 million for a full renovation plus an addition with more classroom space. After getting the estimates, the RSD chose not to renovate the facility.
Bartlett has said Lycée is exploring options to finance the renovation, one of which is working with the Charter Schools Development Corp. If Lycée decides to use CSDC, it would sell Priestley to the organization, which would finance the repairs and lease it back to Lycée.
“We will need more classroom space than what is currently on the Priestley campus,” Bartlett said. “An additional building would likely be built.”
The 2012 facility assessment detailed masonry cracks and the need for new water, fire protection, electrical, and heating and cooling systems. Photographs show termite damage and old classroom doors with all of their windows broken out.
The three-story, 32,000-square-foot school has a 6,500-square-foot gymnasium that was constructed in 1955, according to the report.
Lycée is among the types of charter schools that aren’t guaranteed facilities by the state or the parish school board. And it has spent a significant amount of time and money scouting long-term homes while renting space.
Other charters have recently purchased buildings. Encore Academy is working with CSDC to develop the John A. Shaw School site in St. Roch this summer and plans to open there in the fall.
Even schools that are given facilities have spent time on different campuses as the city rebuilds. When Morris Jeff Community School moved into its permanent campus over winter break, it was its third home in five years.
Lycée was granted a one-year probationary charter extension for the final year of its five-year charter from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this past school year. The probationary status was a result of “failing to meet expectations” regarding its financial responsibilities. The school received only 50 out of 100 possible points regarding its financial performance in 2013-14.
Charter operators are typically granted five-year charters to start, which are reviewed and extended for one year during both the third and fourth years. In the fall, Lycée will go before the state school board for a charter renewal, which could be for anywhere from three to 10 years, based on the school’s academic performance.