In Part 1 of this story, Hollygrove leaders chose a charter operator to run the school in their neighborhood, Paul L. Dunbar Elementary. Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas signed an agreement with that group, Choice Foundation, in 2010. But in December 2013, the Recovery district announced it had reassigned the building to the Knowledge Is Power Program. According to interviews with more than 20 people, archived emails, past press coverage and public records, here is how it went wrong.
In retrospect, there were signs that the Recovery School District‘s commitment to the Hollygrove neighborhood was weakening. In the fall of 2010, about six months after Superintendent Paul Vallas agreed to install Choice Foundation at Hollygrove’s Paul L. Dunbar Elementary campus, one of the school system’s siting plans listed Dunbar as “unassigned,” with the note, “Continue informal meetings with community around possible program for school.”
Panicked Hollygrove residents called Choice director Mickey Landry. Landry said he called Vallas and was told it was an error.
Then in 2011 or 2012, Landry said, he asked Vallas’ successor, John White, about formally applying for the Dunbar charter. He said he was told to wait until renovations on the campus started.
And the Recovery district’s December 2011 school siting plan assigned the Dunbar campus to Benjamin Banneker Elementary, a conventional school then operating in Black Pearl. Landry thought the understanding was that Choice would still move into Dunbar, and incorporate Banneker’s students there.
In early 2013, Dobard and his team turned their attention to KIPP Believe, one of New Orleans’ most successful and established charter schools. Since 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina and levee failures laid waste to New Orleans and its public schools, KIPP Believe’s older students had attended class in the Ronald McNair school campus on South Carrollton Avenue, closer to Riverbend than to Hollygrove.
The 2011 siting plan set KIPP Believe’s final location as Stuart Bradley Elementary in Gentilly. But Dobard’s staff decided to make a change.
Dobard said it didn’t make sense to move KIPP Believe that far away, seven miles, and the Bradley site itself was small. At the same time, officials had decided to close the Banneker program, opening up the Dunbar campus.
Voila: They could move KIPP Believe’s upper grades to Dunbar and put the younger children 1½ miles away in the James Weldon Johnson building.
In addition – though Dobard said this wasn’t a consideration – Orleans Parish school officials had started stumping to reclaim the Bradley property for use as one of their own elementary schools.
According to emails, the decision was made in the early summer. “I know we just gave you Dunbar,” capital projects director Lona Hankins wrote KIPP Believe advocacy director Jonathan Bertsch on June 4, 2013. From that point on, KIPP consulted on the Dunbar campus redesign at Hankins’ request.
Dobard and Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson said they knew Landry wanted Dunbar. But they didn’t think there was any obligation. They said they had no idea that the Vallas memo existed. When they had assigned the building to Banneker in 2011, they meant it – and were puzzled why Landry hadn’t filed an application to charter Banneker. At any rate, the disposition of Dunbar was in their hands.
Did Recovery officials reach out before the decision about Dunbar, or in the six months that elapsed between the decision and the announcement? Landry said they didn’t call him. Nor did they call four Hollygrove leaders: Rev. Kevin Brown of Trinity Christian Community, Jarvain Bingmon of the Hollygrove-Carrollton Community Development Corporation and Shirley Butler and Chander James of the Hollygrove Education Committee, according to these people.
So it was a shock when the Recovery system announced its Dunbar decision in December 2013. Three months later, officials signed an agreement giving the Bradley campus to the Orleans Parish School Board in return for millions of dollars for citywide programs for troubled youth.
Landry said no one called him until shortly before Christmas. So in the early months of 2014, Landry met with Dobard and showed him the Vallas memo.
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In Hollygrove, the sense of betrayal was fierce. Residents thought the disposition of the Dunbar campus was up to them.
“We made a decision already!” Butler said. “We already did this.”
Brown, of Trinity Christian Community, didn’t have any problems with KIPP, but that wasn’t the point. “All of us worked very hard to engage RSD, and we really believed that they had engaged to us,” he said. “Mickey has been a good community partner, Choice. Whereas KIPP – who are they?” Brown felt as though Recovery officials called only when they wanted something from him.
Landry was incensed. “They make such a big deal out of community input, and then they ignore it,” he said. “We have been serving the families of Hollygrove since 2006. They have chosen us to run that building, in partnership, as a neighborhood school, where the community can be involved. … As far as we’re concerned we have a promise.”
Brown and Landry suggested it was impossible that Recovery officials did not know what Hollygrove wanted. There was Vallas’ written agreement, after all, but there also were all the meetings over the years. And there were personal connections: Recovery’s Hankins grew up in Hollygrove, lives right across from Claiborne Avenue now, is friends with Brown and was invited to the 2009 Dunbar-Choice celebration, with a message from Landry thanking her for her support. Sombra Williams, another Hollygrove resident, worked for the Recovery district’s facilities team.
“I just don’t understand it. She never told me about KIPP,” Butler said of Hankins. After the announcement, she said, she called Hankins, who was surprised her colleagues hadn’t followed her advice to call Butler.
Dobard said Hankins and Williams weren’t involved in the school siting decisions, and that they kept their personal affiliations separate from their jobs. The women’s offices aren’t in the same building as his.
And he said Landry was equally at fault, because he never applied for a charter at Dunbar. Vallas’ memo was “not a guarantee,” Dobard said. It promised Dunbar “if he did certain things, which never was actualized upon by Choice Foundation.”
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For its part, KIPP wasn’t about to give up the Dunbar assignment. The KIPP Believe program is well overdue for a new building; the old, crowded McNair site lacks science laboratories and a proper gymnasium, and its air-conditioning can’t keep up even in April.
Director Rhonda Kalifey-Aulise and Bertsch, the advocacy director, said they were blameless in the mix-up. They had no idea anyone had any claims on Dunbar, and they boasted equally strong connections along South Carrollton to the Hollygrove neighborhood.
“We believe that we also have a lot of deep community relationships,” Kalifey-Aulise said. “It probably feels just as organic to us to get this assignment as it does to” Landry. Across the KIPP network’s New Orleans schools, more than 600 students live in Hollygrove, Bertsch said.
As for not reaching out to neighborhood leaders, Bertsch said KIPP at first didn’t want to beat the Recovery district officials to the announcement and later decided to focus on talking with KIPP families. Now, he said, “I think we have a lot of meetings to have” in Hollygrove.
Kalifey-Aulise said she was “excited to connect and excited to have people come in.”
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But Hollygrove didn’t lie down and take it. It roared back. Its leaders wrote to White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, sometimes on Choice Foundation stationery.
“Construction of the new Dunbar is an important part of our revitalization, and one of the top requests of residents following our return after Hurricane Katrina,” wrote Carol Dotson of Hollygrove Neighbors. And yet, “there has been a haphazard way of doing things with this school from the start.”
“We were promised that Choice Foundation would run the school and were excited because of our enduring relationship with them,” Brown wrote. Employing a flourish, he continued, “It was to be a match made in heaven, a school that was responsive to the needs of the community and a community willing to serve the school.”
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry added her view in a letter to BESE: “When the discussions with regard to a (charter management group) were ongoing, the Hollygrove residents were involved and engaged in the process; they researched the available options and expressed a strong preference for Choice,” she wrote. “Crucially, this preference was recognized by then-Superintendent Paul Vallas in an agreement with Choice Foundation. When well-established community partners, neighborhood residents and citizen leaders speak so strongly, it is our responsibility to listen.”
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So now the Recovery system is in a jam, stuck between two respected charter groups and at a turning point in its citywide rebuilding plan. Recent analysis shows New Orleans needs more elementary school seats, making it a good time for Choice’s Lafayette Academy to expand, perhaps to the Dunbar campus.
However, the Recovery system is short on buildings and short on cash. There are few campuses left to assign; citywide, about 50 schools are already in their “permanent” homes. Recent calculations showed the Recovery rebuilding budget might be as much as $200 million short.
In December, Landry said, the Recovery system offered him the McNair and Banneker buildings, instead of the Dunbar campus. No federal recovery money has been budgeted for renovating them, however, and besides, it’s not what Hollygrove wanted.
On Wednesday, Landry and Bertsch sat side-by-side before Dobard at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting in New Orleans. Each again made his organization’s case to get the building.
Though their views on that were incompatible, they shared a frustration and impatience with the Recovery system.
“We’re tired. We need an answer,” Landry said. “I know KIPP is as tired as we are.”
Said Bertsch, “Both of our school communities have been torn up over this.”
Dobard said he hoped to announce the final decision for Dunbar at the next BESE meeting, Aug. 12 in Baton Rouge. No matter what Hollygrove wants, the decision is in his system’s hands, as it always has been.
March: Dunbar building assigned to Lafayette Academy for overflow, but no students ever attend. (1 on map)
August: $1.8 billion FEMA settlement announced.
December: Draft siting plan does not include Dunbar due to clerical error. KIPP Believe assigned to McNair building on South Carrollton Avenue. (2)
October: Master Plan revised; McNair will not be used as a school.
December: Siting plan updated; Dunbar assigned to Banneker, but still no students attend; KIPP Believe assigned to Bradley in Gentilly. (3)
December: Siting plan updated; Dunbar assigned to KIPP Believe. (4)
Source: Times-Picayune staff research
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