Despite John McDonogh’s pending closure, calls for accountability continue
27th January 2014 · 0 Comments
By Kari Harden
John McDonogh High School will be closing at the end of the school year, with renovations scheduled to begin this summer. According to the Recovery School District’s (RSD) estimates, the school will be open and ready for students in the fall of 2016.
For advocates of the school, including 1984 alumnus and parent of two graduates Angelina Elder, the announcement delivered to the school on January 16 by John White was a welcome one, but long overdue.
But for Elder, who for the past four years has spent much of her time contacting every individual and agency imaginable with photographs and documentation of mold, exposed asbestos, rodent droppings and extensive termite and structural damage, the kids should have been out of the building yesterday.
About six months ago, the RSD said that renovations would begin in 2016. Asked what prompted the decision to change the plan by two years, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said that after serious deliberations, the decision was made to accelerate the renovation plans, and give John McDonogh “the fresh start it deserves” and “make good on promises.”
Dobard said that any and all reports of hazardous mold, asbestos and termite damage were untrue, and that the building was habitable for students.
The decision to accelerate the renovations had nothing to do with any changes from a health perspective, Dobard said.
Elder doesn’t buy it. For one, Dobard has seen all of her photographs. “He knows it’s not right,” she said. “He knows he’s going to be in trouble and will lose his job. I’m not going to waste four years of my life on something that’s not true.”
Elder produced an email written Oct. 5, 2013 by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) District 1 Representative James Garvey, just one of the multitude of people to whom she emailed photographs showing a building in undeniably terrible condition. The email was sent from Garvey to Dobard, and reads: “Patrick, Please take a look at the attached pictures which show significant problems at John Mac. Can you tell me if we have plans to address these problems?”
Elder said she believes the sudden decision to close the school was the result of pressure that came from the federal level. She doesn’t take credit, but she has been very busy over the past few months sending out letters and making phone calls.
On Oct. 18, 2013, Elder wrote the following in a letter to President Barack Obama: “On March 18, 2012 you announced that the Department of Education was awarding John McDonogh High School $35 million in that effort. While I do appreciate your commitment to helping public education, I need your help to ensure that the school is quickly rebuilt.
I am writing this letter to let you know that the progress of rebuilding thus far includes merely patchwork. Over the course of four years, I have reported the deplorable condition of the building to the local health department, city officials, state officials, and in particular Mayor Mitchell Landrieu, State Superintendent John White, Louisiana Department of Education and Governor Bobby Jindal. To no avail the problems still exist.
“Having contacted many agencies, I have evidence of black mold existing in the building, rodent infestation, termite infestation and asbestos poison. I have great concern regarding the safety of our children and the staff who must remain in these conditions. The new charter school provider has restricted students from going outside of the building while the windows are bolted. This means that students are constantly breathing toxins that are floating in the air. Black mold is cancerous. The charter provider has refused to relocate to another location while the building is properly rebuilt.”
Elder’s most damning photos were taken from 2009-2011, when she was granted unprecedented access. Since then she has been banned from entering the building, but students have occupied the building since it re-opened in 2006.
Among Elder’s stacks of documents, there are incident reports from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. For the incident report dated August 26, 2013, the “incident description” reads: “The school was built in 1899 and is in deplorable condition. Caller [Elder] has been in contact with DHH regarding mold issues and is also concerned about the school’s asbestos management. School is occupied by students and they are breathing toxic air between the mold and the asbestos and likely lead[.] Administration is aware of the situation. llm”
On page two, the comments by the inspector state the following:
“On 09/10/2013, I conducted a site visit and found suspect material possibly friable. I informed the facility representative. No management plan found on site at the time of the investigation.” The report then states that on Oct. 25, another site visit was conducted and repairs had been “completed to the suspect material.”
A second DEQ report, also dated for a September 10 visit, described the following: “I conducted a facility site tour and found multiple suspect asbestos containing materials that had the potential of becoming friable. The band area had a practice room, store room and an area near a door way that appeared worn and/or crumbled. There was also an area in the main hallway that was crumbled due to foot traffic. I informed the representatives that the areas will need to be maintained, repaired, or replaced if determined to be asbestos containing.”
Then, on the Oct. 25 follow up visit, the inspector reports: “Patch material was found in the hallway area encapsulating the broken tile area. The band room practice closet was repaired with new plywood placed over the asbestos tiles and new tiles covering the plywood. No additional friable suspect material noted during the site tour.”
Yet Dobard and the RSD continue to maintain that reports of exposed asbestos (which can cause multiple types of lung cancer) are untrue.
Asked about the $35 million in federal dollars earmarked for the historic school’s renovation, Dobard said it’s not as simple as that exact amount sitting in a bank account (and accruing massive interest). He said they will determine the scope of renovations and go through the customary bid process, and that all money that is required to do the job will be made available and may come from “different revenue sources.”
In her letter to Obama, Elder wrote, “While it is my understanding that the funds have been released to the state for this purpose, it has not properly been used. The students have been made to remain at this hazardous site while the money is gaining interest and possibly being used for other projects.
It is my hope that you will research what monies have been released from the federal government and how these monies have been spent. Please do not merely accept some written report from the state, but have someone under your authority conduct an audit or site visit with this particular matter.”
For others who are fighting to preserve John Mac as a community school and ensure a high quality education for the students, like Clarence Robinson, chairman of the John McDonogh Advisory Committee, there are still more questions than answers. Robinson, a 1977 alumnus, also serves on the executive board of the FINS.
Robinson said that he was blindsided by the news of the June closure, and that the RSD has not been very forthcoming in providing information about what is happening.
He agrees that the condition of the building is “deplorable” and that “the kids should have never been put in that situation.”
The fate of Future is Now New Orleans (FINS), the current charter operator of John Mac, remains unclear. Dobard said their charter was not being revoked, but that it was unlikely to be renewed. RSD policy states that charter operators have three years before their contract is up for renewal – or revocation. FINS has been at John Mac for less than two years.
Dobard cited FINS’ abysmal 2012-2013 School Performance Score, a 9.3 out of 150, as a serious concern.
The current John Mac students will be prioritized for placement in a list of “participating Recovery School District high schools” for the 2014-2015 school year, according to the RSD. The RSD also says that “Faculty and staff will receive support from FIN and NSNO (New Schools for New Orleans).”
While Robinson does not deny that FINS has made their share of blunders – most egregiously the misrepresentation and exploitation of their students and the community on the reality television series “Blackboard Wars” – he feels that the bulk of the blame for the “utter mismanagement” of John Mac lies at the feet of the RSD.
For one, the RSD selected FINS as the operator in what many considered a backroom deal that sabotaged the wishes and plans of the alumni and community.
“We didn’t pick them, the RSD did,” Robinson said. “Why should the RSD get another chance to fail the students and the community?”
There’s a lot more going on, Robinson said, and he aims to find out. “I’m frustrated with the whole process. I don’t know who to believe.”
Elder said she “hopes and prays” that FINS never returns to the city, and is pleased that renovations will begin sooner than later, but “My thing is they need to get the kids out of the building now.”
Elder said she’s had her suspicions confirmed that some of the mold is potentially cancerous. The windows are bolted shut, many boarded up, and the children not allowed outside, she said. Based on that, and the asbestos, Elder predicts an onslaught of lawsuits from parents. “It’s coming out,” she said.
Robinson says his big concern is that, come 2016, there will be a “shiny new building,” and once again, the community won’t have any say in what happens inside the building. “We are losing the heritage I grew up with,” he said.
Robinson said that he feels that John Mac has been persistently under-resourced while being tasked with serving a disproportionately high percentage of students with special needs, and has never been given the opportunity to succeed. He said all he wants is honesty from the officials.
“The fight is not nearly over,” Robinson said. “I can promise you that.”
This article originally published in the January 27, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.