For 12 years, Orleans Parish public school officials have been trying to figure out how to secure a sports field for the new Booker T. Washington High School on Earhart Boulevard.
Now, it appears the Housing Authority of New Orleans may be ready to make a deal for a nearly $2.9 million vacant field that abuts the campus.
But not everyone is pleased with the prospect because of what HANO appears to want in return: the 120-year-old McDonogh No. 7 building on Milan Street, which is appraised for about $3.9 million and is currently occupied by Audubon Charter School's upper school campus, housing students in grades 4 to 8.
The land under McDonogh No. 7 is separately valued at $1.1 million, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor's Office.
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The Orleans Parish School Board voted Thursday to enter into talks with HANO but did not specify what surplus property it might offer in exchange for the sports field. However, the McDonogh No. 7 building is the only property that has been discussed in detail for the prospective swap at public meetings.
If HANO acquires the old school, it intends to build a mixed-income, mixed-use complex at the site while abiding by "the zoning requirements and architectural integrity of the neighborhood," according to Lesley Thomas, the agency's spokeswoman.
The OPSB's chief operating officer, Eric Seling, said that before McDonogh No. 7 could be traded away, it would first have to be placed on the district's surplus list and then offered for sale to charter school operators. While the building could go on the surplus list as early as April, it would only be traded or sold after it is vacated by Audubon Charter School, which is expected to be in 2021.
Among the most vocal opponents of a swap are members of the Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association, who say the historic building in their neighborhood should remain a school. Some also said they fear HANO might not be good stewards of the property.
"We understand the need for Booker T. to get this land" next to the planned school, Tom Schoenbrun, a neighborhood association board member, told OPSB members on Thursday. "We don’t think HANO should be leveraging you to make that happen."
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and OPSB member Ben Kleban said they strongly support any proposal that would allow the district to acquire additional land for the new high school, a $52 million building that's supposed to open next school year.
In 2015, officials announced that the Knowledge Is Power Program, commonly known as KIPP, would operate the new high school. The deal was considered a victory for community members concerned about a prior plan: a proposed merger of Booker T. Washington and Walter L. Cohen High, a charter school run by the organization New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, to make one mega high school.
Instead, KIPP opened a school named KIPP Booker T. Washington High School in 2016 on Third Street in Central City in advance of the move to the Earhart Boulevard site. The C-rated school currently teaches students in grades 9 to 11 and will add 12th grade next year.
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Lewis on Thursday called the new building a "fabulous facility," but officials for more than a decade have worried about the site's lack of athletic and play space.
"Children deserve to have a full educational experience. That includes extracurricular, high school activities, athletics," Kleban said. "They need to run, they need to play, and (adding 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."
His opinions were echoed by William Giles and Nolan McSwain, both former principals of Booker T. Washington.
"We’ve been fighting this battle since (Hurricane) Katrina," McSwain said. "We have to have that land. This is the final piece of the puzzle."
Regardless of whether a deal is struck to trade the McDonogh No. 7 building, the new Booker T. Washington campus has long been a source of contention for different reasons.
As part of a sprawling, $1.8 billion schools rebuilding plan financed largely by FEMA funds, officials announced they would build a brand-new school to replace the one that had been built in 1940 as the first public high school in New Orleans designed specifically for African-American children. Its 2,000-seat auditorium long served as the primary civic gathering space for the city's black community.
The original school was closed in 2004, before Katrina, and was largely demolished between 2011 and 2016 after being ruined by the storm. Because of the extent of the demolition, the three-story, Art Deco high school was removed from the National Register of Historic Places two years ago, upsetting some community members; it had been placed on the list in 2002.
Then, as construction on the new school began, activists protested because the school was being rebuilt on top of the Silver City Dump, a toxic waste site that once was a city landfill. The landfill closed a few years before the original high school was erected.
Officials spent millions to remediate the site with 6 feet of clean soil in 2016 as part of a plan approved by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to protect future students from chemicals like barium, lead, mercury and arsenic, found as deep as 15 feet below the surface.
HANO also spent nearly $5 million to replace the soil on the adjacent field, its spokeswoman said.
School Board member Woody Koppel said he still has concerns.
"I want to make sure that all the environmental issues with this piece of property are resolved, 100 percent, so that this district doesn’t get saddled with some sort of remediation a year from now," Koppel said at a committee meeting last week.
Despite HANO's investment in the property next to Booker T. Washington, Koppel also said he was skeptical that the agency's officials would offer a fair-value trade with the OPSB.
"We’ve dealt with HANO and dealt with their machinations for some time," he said. "And they haven’t always been the easiest folks to deal with, and we’ve bent over backwards many, many times for them on property swaps."