Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - School and city leaders vowed to build another school in the lower Ninth Ward Monday, putting a new Lawless High School back on its old location.
But with the details of the Orleans schools Master Plan amendments still up in the air, how much it will cost and when it will be open are still big unknowns.
“It took too long. But I'm proud to see it happen," said former Lawless athletics coach Elwin Carter, Jr., at a press conference announcing the commitment to Lawless.
Flood water leveled the lower Ninth Ward high school in 2005, but a vocal group of residents has always held out hope it would be back.
“We were never a part of the schools' facilities master plan. We were in the plan in 2008 and for some reason, we disappeared,” Vanessa Gueringer, a member of the Lower Ninth Ward School Development Group.
They’ve been pushing the Recovery and Orleans Parish School Districts to rebuild more schools in the Ninth Ward since the storm. Right now, MLK Charter School is the only public school in the area.
It literally took an act of Congress for the Recovery School District to get FEMA to give them one big pot of money for all of the schools damaged by Katrina city-wide. The grand total they received for damaged buildings was about $2 billion dollars.
“The reason we did the bundling is so that we can reshape the school system for the next century, not the one we had but the one we need in the future. So, there will be some neighborhoods that get more schools, some neighborhoods that have less schools, but the whole system will be served fairly and justly,” said Senator Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, who fought for the change in the Stafford Act to allow the School District to approach rebuilding in a holistic manner, not building-by-building.
But questions of fairness are sticking points in the RSD's Master Plan, both in its original form, and in the proposed amendments that the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Orleans Parish School Board are scheduled to vote on in the Fall.
“We still maintain that $91 million was taken from this community for shuttered schools,” Gueringer said.
The rebuilding of Lawless High School is still a future goal. Monday’s press conference took place in the open field where the school stood before the storm. Plans for the school are contingent on the votes by the two school boards’ approval of the Master Plan amendments.
“Big changes, for instance, like not doing this building, that's not gonna happen. We made commitments in this case. We need the boards to pass the plans,” said John White, the new Superintendent of the Recovery School District.
It was clear from Monday’s press conference that White is already making his pitch to the BESE and Orleans Parish School Boards. The votes were originally scheduled for late summer, but last week, think tank, the Bureau of Governmental Research, asked them to delay the votes because their research showed what they perceive as problems with the funding and scope of the schools included in the plan.
“Some students were going to end up in more palatial surroundings and others were going to end up in buildings that had leaks and termites the way the plans were divised,” said BGR Executive Director Janet Howard.
Plus, according to Superintendent White, $400 million dollars is unfunded in the final phase of the master plan. BGR raised concerns that it could leave a significant gap in improvements to some of the schools, and asking the tax base to support it would likely be difficult.
While White said Monday, each of the facilities in the plan is being re-examined to maximize efficiency, there could still be a cost gap that FEMA funds wouldn’t fill.
“It's gonna come from a source that's gonna be required to be named by whoever is running those facilities in the future. That could come from current debt sources that are being named, that could come from future taxes,” White said.
The Master Plan, amended with the existing proposal on Monday, gives Lawless a $38 million dollar price tag to serve 850 students. White said that could change before the Master Plan vote, but once the plan is passed, he hopes to have construction underway in 14 to 18 months.