"We have a potential for the charter school movement in New Orleans to become a failure in line with the Road Home Program," says Roark, president of the Broadmoor Development Corporation, a Broadmoor Charter School Board member and a former teacher. "It scares me to think about what education will look like in this city in two years, based on how we are dealing with opening schools to educate our children. This was supposed to be the time when we got education in New Orleans right."
Roark cites the charter board's frustrating experience at Andrew H. Wilson Elementary, once a Broadmoor neighborhood school, as both an example and a warning of what can go wrong. The charter board has repeatedly clashed with the Recovery School District (RSD), which the state created to take over New Orleans' most troubled schools. The Broadmoor group was awarded a charter by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), but Wilson Elementary was not allowed to reopen because of flood damage and post-Katrina vandalism. Now neighbors and charter board members are scrambling to locate a facility to house their charter school in time for next year's first day of class -- less than four months away.
"There's a belief (in neighborhoods struggling to recover) that, 'Man, if they're treating Broadmoor like this, which is better organized and has the good fortune to have Harvard and MIT students working with them, then this is bad for the rest of us,'" Roark says. "This isn't just a Broadmoor issue. This isn't just a Wilson issue. The whole policy [to determine which school sites to reopen] is screwed up, and the tip of the screw-up just happens to be us here in Broadmoor."
Over the course of two hours, Roark lays out the history of Broadmoor's fight not only to exist but also to open a charter school at Wilson Elementary. The neighborhood gained local and national attention by defending itself against an early "recovery" plan that could have turned it into green space. Now that Broadmoor has made its case for recovery, residents want to bring back their neighborhood school as a charter.
Talking over a long table topped with stacks of papers in a room plastered with city and neighborhood maps, Roark sees a constant flow of residents and activists pass in and out, each one on a mission. His office at the Broadmoor Development Corporation is so busy that a recording gently reminds callers, "As we are a volunteer-based organization, please allow up to 72 hours for the return of your call."
Roark isn't taking calls this afternoon, and he's canceled his appointments. Instead, he's decided to give a tour of Wilson Elementary.
We pull up and park behind the school. Roark hops out, talking, and strolls through the unlocked and wide-open 12-foot fence surrounding the campus. Standing in the large oak-shaded courtyard, he looks up to the roof. A hatch is open. "Here's what I want you to notice. See there," he says, pointing to a lone gutter. "All the gutters are copper, which are extremely valuable. The downspouts are copper, which are also valuable."
Post-storm looters stole the first-floor gutters and downspouts long ago. The open hatch signals a new and more brazen operation: Now they climb out onto the roof, lower a partner down the side of the three-story building, most likely under the veil of late-night cover, and rip off the remaining copper.
Roark crosses the courtyard and points to where industrial-grade air-conditioning units once sat on a raised 4-foot slab and encased in an 8-foot-high chain-link fence -- to protect them from both water and man. "There were ... 12 air conditioning units here as of 60 days ago," he says. "And they've all been stolen.
"Every time I come out here, I notice something else is stolen. And why is that an issue? Because every door is open."
We head up to the school and enter through a back door that has been left ajar. There are no chains, no locks, and many of the brass door knobs have been pilfered. Nothing seems to keep looters out.
In the 21 months since Katrina, Wilson Elementary has never been secured. Its unboarded windows make it an easy mark for thieves, who have stolen not only the copper plumbing and large AC units outside the building, but also most toilets and sinks inside.
"There could be easily $500,000 to a million dollars in additional damage to this school because it has never been secured," Roark says. "So here's the problem: They're going to do an assessment of Wilson to determine how bad it is, and all this is going to count against us. The copper is going to count against us. The AC units are going to count against us. And then [the RSD] is going to claim that Wilson is in worse shape than other schools -- but they've significantly contributed to the damages by leaving the windows open and the building unsecured."
The school was not gutted after the storm, either -- at least not until volunteers from the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) took the ground floor down to the studs in January, a task Roark calls "herculean." The volunteers hoped that if they took time away from gutting and reclaiming their own homes and instead gutted their school, they just might get it open by the fall.
"We're thinking about submitting our bill to FEMA," he says, half joking. "Pay us. We gutted the building."
Shortly after residents got busy, workers in HAZMAT suits showed up and threw desks, books and computers out second- and third-floor windows, leaving most of the windows open. Meanwhile, mold-covered walls and sagging, water-damaged ceilings on the top floors remain untouched. Pigeons nest in the rafters and rats in the walls. Leaks in the terra-cotta roof haven't been sealed, not even by once-ubiquitous blue tarps. And every time it rains, the holes get a little bigger, forming pools of stagnant water on all three floors.
"Any time you leave a school to fester," says BIA president Latoya Cantrell, who also is a charter school board member, "education is clearly not a priority."
Wilson was once a beautiful school -- a salmon-colored tank of a building, erected in the 1920s with hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings and sculptures inlaid in the wide gallery-like halls. Its current condition infuriates Roark, who sees the neglect of his neighborhood school as part of a "classic post-Katrina fiasco." He notes the irony of the city's vastly unmet requirement that residents gut and board up their homes by the one-year anniversary of the flood, yet no one required that be done at dozens of schools throughout the city.
We step into what was once the school cafeteria. Roark points to a water line about 3 feet from the floor and more than a foot below electrical boxes. Then he notes the bright blue plastic wires dangling over our heads. About 10 years ago, Wilson underwent a makeover, he says. The school was fitted with new electrical cables and boxes, a new central air conditioning and heating system, a sprinkler system and steel studs.
Referring to the RSD and the system's financial consultants, Alvarez & Marsal, Roark says, "If they had done their job and gutted the building, they would have found out what great shape it was in. But they didn't. And because they didn't secure it, either, Wilson may not be assessed as one of the cheapest buildings to repair. This is all due to managerial error. This was not Katrina. They blame it on Katrina. But that's just wrong."
RSD Superintendent Robin Jarvis, who oversees 21 schools and helps determine which facilities will reopen for the 2007-2008 academic year, declined to be interviewed for this story. Two days after a dozen questions and document requests were sent to RSD communications director Siona LaFrance, Jarvis' office emailed a statement:
"The RSD will be working with the Broadmoor Development Corporation group to identify alternate locations, including possible leased facilities that could be used for their school next fall. We understand the group's concerns and their strong desire to open a school in their community and will do everything we can to reach an acceptable solution."
Carrie Stewart, a senior director with Alvarez & Marsal, the contractor responsible for managing repairs and security at public school sites, discussed general plans to bring the school district back but did not respond to specific questions regarding the condition of Wilson Elementary.
And BESE president Linda Johnson, whose board supervises Jarvis and the RSD, did not return multiple calls and messages left on her personal voice mail over a two-week period.
Faced with the lack of repairs at Wilson, charter board members have resigned themselves to the notion that their neighborhood school will not reopen this coming year. They have been instructed to tour nearly a dozen potential sites at the direction of Jarvis and various BESE officials. The fact that Broadmoor has not been guaranteed a facility -- in writing -- concerns some board members.
When asked about the charter board's most recent site proposal to the RSD, Roark replies, "Which one? You mean proposal number 4,336?"
Cantrell and Roark say RSD and BESE officials recently gave verbal assurances that Broadmoor could move its charter school into McDonogh No. 7 Elementary School, which is located two miles from Broadmoor, but they have yet to see a written contract. "They've told us it was a done deal, but we still haven't signed anything," Roark says.
Based on the Broadmoor board's experiences over the past several months, many remain skeptical. As the clock ticks closer to the opening-day bell, some fear they won't have time to prepare a school and hire staff. "We're running out of time," Roark says. "All our attempts to be proactive and find solutions are quickly fading away. ... We're exhausted, and we haven't even opened the school yet. That's when the real work begins."
On March 20, the RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) said they expect to have upwards of 80 schools open by the 2007-2008 school year, enrolling nearly 40,000 students. Many schools may not be open, however, until several weeks or months into the coming school year, says Alvarez & Marsal's Stewart. Currently, 56 schools serve approximately 28,000 students. Prior to the storm, close to 62,000 students attended 128 schools, many of which, residents now fear, may go the way of the wrecking ball -- or be turned into condos.
The Louisiana Department of Education announced on April 25 that it has received six proposals from companies interested in developing a "master plan" to determine which Orleans Parish schools will reopen in coming years. Working in partnership with the RSD, the OPSB and the City of New Orleans' Office of Recovery Management, the department anticipates awarding the multi-million-dollar contract soon. Results are expected by January 2008.
The master plan will be a "comprehensive, data-driven look at the magnitude of improvements needed at each school site," Stewart says. It will also make demographic projections five years into the future. Until now, the focus has been on "finding a seat for every child," she adds. "In the master plan, every building and every neighborhood will be looked at in a comprehensive way."
Shortly after the plan's announcement, Stewart said the following schools have undergone repairs for months with the understanding that they will reopen in the fall: Medard H. Nelson Elementary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology, A. D. Crossman Elementary, Sylvanie F. Williams Elementary, Gentilly Terrace Elementary, Henry Schaumburg Elementary, Charles J. Colton Junior High, the former McDonogh No. 28 Junior High and Booker T. Washington High School.
OPSB president Phyllis Landrieu stated in an email that repairs to Bethune Elementary are nearing completion, that Mahalia Jackson Elementary will open in September and that the school board may open Robert R. Moton Elementary School.
RSD and OPSB officials have said in the past that they are working with the city, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Recovery Director Ed Blakely to lease alternative sites at churches and at commercial and public properties to house schools for the 2007-2008 academic year. In March, FEMA announced it would provide $46.8 million to purchase and place modular classroom facilities at various locations.
Over the past several months, Broadmoor residents and college volunteers have gone door to door surveying all 2,400 properties in the neighborhood. Although the results won't be available until July, Roark says early projections point to 60-70 percent of Broadmoor being repopulated by the year's end. And on Friday, Dartmouth College researchers announced results from a March survey conducted in Gentilly: a mere 4 percent of the 16,039 lots are abandoned. More than half are gutted or under construction, and a third are occupied or restored. With repopulation data available from neighborhood organizations and universities and at least a dozen school sites already identified to reopen, Broadmoor School Board members question why another contractor needs to be hired -- at a cost of several million dollars -- to determine which schools will reopen and which will be demolished or sold.
"To say that we need to wait for another master plan that won't be made public until January of 2008 -- that's criminal," Cantrell says. "Millions of dollars are being spent on studies and planning, and nothing is happening. What are neighborhoods supposed to do, especially those that have picked themselves up and been proactive?"
Roark claims that in a recent meeting at the RSD office with charter school officials, he saw a large, color-coded map in Jarvis' office showcasing schools slated to reopen across the city.
"It's the smoking gun that proves they are determining which schools to reopen without the master plan," he says. Roark and other Broadmoor school board members also question the criteria used to assess school damages and repopulation figures for purposes of deciding which school will reopen.
"Neighborhood location is supposed to be one of their criteria," he says. "Broadmoor is recovering faster than almost everybody. So what's the mystery as to why Wilson is not on that list? ... No one can produce the criteria because it's all about politics."
"I would like to see the actual reports from Alvarez & Marsal that show that these schools, in relation to all the others, were significantly less damaged than Wilson," he adds, referring to the list of schools provided by Stewart. "Prove it."
Landrieu, president of the OPSB, wrote that "from October 2005 a list was developed ranking schools in order of less damaged to more to most damaged, to determine how quickly they could be brought back."
Gambit Weekly requested damage reports and repair invoices for schools slated to reopen in the fall of 2007, as well as for the criteria used to rank school readiness, but those requests have been ignored by Alvarez & Marsal and the RSD.
Meanwhile, the Broadmoor school board has partnered with Edison Schools, the nation's largest and oldest for-profit charter school company, to open a charter school in the fall. Both parties hope a return to Wilson in 2008 will anchor an educational corridor in the neighborhood. Current plans for the corridor include a modern library at the Rosa F. Keller Center, located two blocks from Wilson, and a new YMCA facility for community and after-school activities.
"But if we don't have education in the neighborhood, we're done," Cantrell says. "Our educational corridor means nothing without a school."
At the end of Roark's tour of the school, he put Broadmoor's struggles into a larger context: "If your neighborhood doesn't have a school in the long-term growth plan, you're at risk for losing it -- because what that's saying is that we don't believe in growth; we don't believe in public education. So if you're in a neighborhood farther out, such as the Lower Ninth Ward or eastern New Orleans, and that public land is sold, you're not getting it back. So if you lose your public school, you're not getting another one. And that should be a moral outrage to the people of New Orleans."