Monday, August 18, 2008

Evaluating the School Facilities Master Plan

Today, the planning partnership between Parsons and Concordia released a much-hyped facilities master plan that, if approved, will guide the recovery of New Orleans public schools. I have been following this process for some time and can say confidently that the final plan is exactly what it was expected to be: a backdoor attempt to codify the smaller city size vociferously opposed by the vast majority of native New Orleanians.

The first attempt to 'shrink the footprint' was the plan released by the Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Their prototype map of the future New Orleans showed large green dots signifying a plan to raze culturally significant and historic neighborhoods and replace them with parks. The second attempt was the toothless Unified New Orleans Plan, or UNOP. This plan was empowered to do largely the same thing as the BNOB plan, only this time with the rubber stamp of "citizen input." The citizen participation process for UNOP was lead by Concordia, an architecture and planning firm lead by Steven Bingler. From the perspective of citizens, Concordia's public participation efforts were abysmally undemocratic. Public meetings were poorly advertised and input was largely relegated to those with access to internet or fax. The idea was to create the illusion of democratic participation in order to codify the same small footprint proposed by Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

Thus, it came as no surprise when the State Superintendent of Education, Paul Pastorek selected Steven Bingler's Concordia to lead the master plan for New Orleans schools. Teaming with Concordia to assess the state of New Orleans school facilities was Parsons Corp, recently the subject of a large scale investigation after bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars in bogus postwar rebuilding contracts in Iraq.

Presciently, education advocates in New Orleans sensed that the ultimate facilities master plan put forth by Concordia-Parsons would consolidate the capacity of the New Orleans education system by closing down and demolishing scores of former schools. Certainly, many buildings are so badly damaged that they need to be replaced, but many school sites will not be rebuilt. Everyone recognizes that population exodus from New Orleans and from public schools since 1970 has necessitated some closures, yet advocates feared that large-scale consolidations would again sap public resources away from already-struggling neighborhoods and deny those neighborhoods the services that ultimately determine whether or not it can provide for former residents evaluating whether or not to return.

The public participation process as conducted by Concordia was again suppressive-by-design. Poorly advertised, meetings featured surveys asking leading questions that reinforced the preexisting agendas of professional planners. Perhaps most damning, the Recovery School District had already begun demolishing buildings throughout the city before public participation meetings had started, rendering the process disingenuous from its very onset.

I attended what was the last public briefing on the status of the master plan and was decidedly disappointed, not by the turnout of the community, but by the efforts to prevent (or not attract) turnout amongst critical stakeholders, such as parents.

The result of the facilities master plan was finally released in Sunday's Times-Picayune.

The schools' master plan, provided to The Times-Picayune before its widespread release Monday, calls for the construction or complete renovation of 28 schools in about five years, including eight new high schools. Six of the projects included in the master plan's first phase are already under way as part of the system's "quick start" construction initiative.

Just as important, officials say, the plan would close or liquidate dozens of buildings -- for instance, cutting the number of high school campuses in half -- to create a more efficient system housed in state-of-the-art environments. All told, more than 50 existing buildings would be sold or put to new uses as part of a $1.8 billion, six-phase facilities plan designed to span three decades.

To reiterate, 52 of 125 campuses will be sold or "repurposed". Twenty eight schools will see construction. The Times-Picayune labels their map of buildings to be renovated as a 'Building Boom.' The plan is better characterized as a 'demolition depression' and might be more accurately illustrated if closures were also plotted on the map.

There is currently funding for the Phase I construction and renovation of 28 schools over the next five years. Beyond that, there is no funding to expand to more facilities, thus there is no concrete Phase II.

Students at Carver High School in the upper 9th ward, will remain in trailers until 2013 without any assurances that new facilities will ever be built on-site. Frederick Douglass High School, housed in a very solid facility on St. Claude Avenue, will close in 2011.

Thus, there is to be no high school located in the Upper or Lower Ninth Ward by 2013. There is no planned high school construction in Gentilly either. Mid-City is left out of Phase I almost entirely.

These are sustainable neighborhoods. These are culturally significant neighborhoods. But, they sustained significant damage from the Federal Flood.

Why does this keep happening?

Why is it that neighborhoods most in need of attention are so consistently being punished by rebuilding plans?

When you boil it down to its core, there was a major ideological decision made by technocrats, politicians, and/or business leaders that guides every recovery decision. This decision is routinely glossed over by professional planners and totally ignored by the media we rely upon to provide proper context.

Planners believe that services must be improved to better serve the most populated areas after the storm. This is not an improper calculation by itself but becomes regressive when one considers the practical consequences of this seemingly rational policy. In order to receive money, attention, and services a neighborhood has to prove it's viability through re-population estimates and projections. Sections of the city that were more severely damaged during the storm obviously repopulate at a slower pace and therefore do not qualify as viable neighborhoods and are subsequently enshrined as poor investments. Thus, it is the neighborhoods that did not flood (generally better-off socioeconomically) that are being provided the lion's share of recovery dollars. Neighborhoods that sustained heavier flooding (generally worse-off socioeconomically), are not seen as having a large enough population to necessitate things like roads, schools, public transportation, police, and hospitals.

For flooded neighborhoods to recover, they need these types of basic social services. In order for businesses to open in damaged neighborhoods, they need to see that people will return. For people to return, they need to see that the government will extend the courtesy of basic social services.

Various governmental agencies, all operating out of the same technocratic playbook are enshrining the continued starvation of already victimized neighborhoods for decades to come. By basing these important decision on current population estimates, they deny damaged neighborhoods with critical catalysts that might spur rebuilding and re-population, rendering future demographic estimates showing continued struggles a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Already-damaged neighborhoods starved of basic municipal services will only continue to flounder. Those still displaced from these communities will see little reason to rebuild and those that have already spend thousands to do just that will be stuck in the margins.

This accomplishes a de facto shrinking of the footprint, a de facto smaller New Orleans, and a de facto permanent displacement of tens of thousands of our neighbors.

The school facilities master plan will be a major contributor to this process. They've based their enrollment projections on demographic estimates that take into account the plans of other municipal and state agencies to emphasize or ignore certain neighborhoods. The insistence on locating schools near community assets ensures that schools will not be located in areas still struggling for access to rebuilt those basic assets.

Moments ago, I attended the media presentation of the master plan at the Contemporary Arts Center. I asked State Superintendent Paul Pastorek to what extent he believed the locations of schools facilities might impact future population patterns. He answered that he believed it would have a positive effect. I then quickly followed up by inquiring whether it then followed that the population of a community might be negatively impacted because it was not selected to receive a school. He had no satisfactory reply, stumbling toward an insistence that the master plan was not in the business of influencing re-population.

If the presence of governmental facilities, assets, and services contributes to an individual or family's decision to return and rebuild, to what extent does the absence of such basic maintenance discourage population renewal?

Did planners not ask themselves this question?

Or more macabre, did they smile at the answer?


Tomorrow at 5PM, the RSD will present the master plan to the OPSB in a public event at McDonough 35 High School at 1331 Kerelec St. After that, the public will have thirty days to comment. It is likely that there will be an effort to ensure the master plan is approved by the current Orleans Parish School Board. This is unacceptable because five of the seven members of that body are not running for reelection. Any binding OPSB vote MUST be delayed until the citizens have a chance to elect a new board.


Anonymous said...

The first UNOP citywide meeting was poorly advertised. That's not true of the second, however, nor of many held afterward. The questions were often leading and footprint-oriented on purpose, but ... I saw nothing about shrinking the footprint in the final plan, except for vague, uneforceable ideas about "clustering," which led to the Blakely target zones plan, which has yet to be carried out almost anywhere. The UNOP's final product is stupid in that it's toothless, not funded by anyone and thus something far less than a plan for anything.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and some of those earlier district meetings were poorly advertised. Later ones, from my recollection, seemed vastly better advertised and attended by more diverse populations.

alli said...

Hey, did you catch this NYT Mag article on NOLA public schools over the weekend? It's almost like it was timed to coincide with the release of the facilities master plan. And by almost, I mean that it was most definitely planned this way.

Leigh C. said...

Thanks once again for going, E. I hope I'm recovered enough from my illness to go tomorrow night. There are already many concerns being voiced by the parents at my son's school over what is being proposed here.

The continued scheduling of these meetings is quite deliberate in its exclusion of the input of the actual members of the communities where these schools will be restored/rebuilt. This last one was too close to the school pickup time for most public school parents to attend, and scheduling the Tuesday one right at 5 PM is another flipping of the scheduling bird in the faces of interested parties.


LatinTeacher said...

I am not nearly as close to this as you are, and I am not personally invested in it right now. I do teach, and I am concerned about my hometown. That said, here are my comments:

I agree with you that the process appears to be disingenuous. Something seems wrong with the entire planning process. On the other hand, new state of the art schools may help things. If there are fewer buildings, that means less overhead and more money for teachers and materials. And while I have and continue to advocate for all displaced New Orleanians to return, not all are going to return. You can't build state of the art buildings for students that aren't there. For an urban school system that is already struggling for cash and attention, this at least makes some improvements. I would love to see ALL of the schools rebuilt/improved but it doesn't make sense currently. Of course, neither does the decision to not work on Carver or Douglass.

On the other hand, if the population continues to return to the hardest hit areas, there should be some contingency plan or site to build a new school.