Filed Under:  Education, Local

RSD scraps plans to move Cohen to Booker T. Washington site

26th October 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

It was once called an “ulcer” in the middle of New Orleans.

Until the 1930s, the Silver City Dump operated as the second-largest landfill in New Orleans, collecting more than 150 tons of waste. It would later become a racially segregated housing unit, community center and the site of the now-shuttered Booker T. Washington High School.

And, as recent as October 21, it was slated to host the controversial merger of two high schools, a plan to relocate kids from Cohen College Prep High School to Washington’s campus in Central City.

Educators are now lauding a decision by the state-run Recovery School District to keep the historic schools separate, as part of a complicated land-swap deal announced by RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard on last week.

The agreement gives the Washington site to another charter organization, KIPP New Orleans, and could free up as much as $20 million to rebuild Cohen at its original Uptown site on Dryades Street.

“This is a remarkable victory,” said James H. Raby, the president of the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association. “We are confident that the decision to rebuild the Cohen High School at its present location will benefit our young people and help to ensure a brighter future for New Orleans.”

Washington, named after the American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States, was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The former Walter L. Cohen High School, named after a Louisiana Republican politician, became part of the charter operator New Orleans College Prep in 2012.

Cohen’s alumni association had long deplored plans to move to Washington. At the center of one debate was a desire to keep autonomy as a school, in its historic location.

At the center of another, however, was concern for student safety, according to the Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. Along with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the organization pointed out that the former Booker T. Washington site had between two and 24 times the allowable limits of lead, mercury and arsenic.

Contamination from those kinds of heavy metals can cause a myriad of health issues, including cancer, damage to the nervous system and respiratory problems.

On Wednesday, Dobard told The Louisiana Weekly that the former Booker T. Washington site was safe.

In addition to building a $55 million school, the RSD leader said the deal’s price tag included a $3 million environmental remediation plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

“The site will be fully remediated, which makes it safe for children or anyone for that matter,” Dobard said, adding that the plan was being considered a “national model” for redevelopment on a former waste site. “It’s going to be expertly done.”

To protect future students from the chemicals found as deep as 15 feet below the surface, the RSD is in the process of removing three feet of dirt, placing geotextile fabric over it and adding six feet of clean soil on top, according to the district’s Chief Facilities Officer, Ron Bordelon.

So far, he added, the remediation is 90 percent complete, and slated to be finished by the end of November.

Bordelon said the site was littered with “construction-type” debris, like glass and brick. And according to Dobard, “nothing ever on the site that would be considered hazardous to humans.”

KIPP spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said the organization trusted RSD’s remediation plan.

“We are confident that the RSD is building a safe, first-class building for our students,” Bertsch said.

But the Cohen alumni association and Advocates for Environmental Human Rights disagreed. Recently, they took the RSD to court over the site, and in a notice of intent to file suit said the remediation plan was “arbitrary,” “endangering” and “limited.”

The controversy even ignited the Louisiana Legislature, which attempted to ban the development of new schools on former waste sites.

“In sum, your plan to build a school on top of highly contaminated soil creates unacceptable health risks for students – the very people who the RSD and OPSB are entrusted to protect,” the letter read, adding that the soil barrier “is not a permanent solution and is subject to failure, especially given the effects of natural subsidence and the frequency of flooding.”

On last Wednesday, environmental rights advocates and school leaders said they felt they had won the fight to protect Cohen students.

“The RSD plan would have abused the human rights of Cohen students with the risk of toxic exposure to highly contaminated soil,” said Nathalie Walker, an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

In the meantime, KIPP announced that it, too, had good news, in the form of a funding partner for a new combined elementary and middle school called KIPP Believe.

KIPP plans to house 950 students in kindergarten through 8th grade in the new school, through a partnership with the Bayou District Foundation, a mixed-income community at the former St. Bernard housing complex. Right now, those students are scattered in two temporary locations: the former Banneker School building Uptown and the Dunbar School building in Hollygrove.

KIPP’s plan frees up money for Cohen’s new facility, as the RSD “repurposes” the funds once intended for KIPP Believe. The deal will be complete once FEMA Master Plan insurance proceeds are reconciled, according to a letter Dobard wrote to stakeholders recently.

KIPP’s high school will open to freshman next fall, reports say. There’s no timeline for when the charter will open its elementary school, and Cohen’s building plans aren’t yet finalized.

Dobard says the deal is already a win-win for everyone.

“We preserve historic high schools in separate facilities, and continue to honor those legacies,” Dobard said. “And we build on our plan to make sure we are educating kids to their highest potential.”

Monique Harden, a spokeswoman with the Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, disagrees.

“We’re pleased that folks have been able to meet their goal for the Cohen school but that does not end the situation,” Harden told The Louisiana Weekly. “It’s a problem that continues the history of environmental racism in the City of New Orleans into the 21st century, with the building of homes and schools for African Americans on toxic waste dumps.”

This article originally published in the October 26, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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