Ongoing asbestos cleanup forces 2 New Orleans schools to spend another year at temporary spots

Source: https://www.theadvocate.com, May 19, 2019
By: Marta Jewson

Two New Orleans charter schools will spend a second year in temporary facilities as multimillion-dollar asbestos remediation jobs stretch into another school year. The schools — Lafayette Academy in Carrollton and Rosenwald Collegiate Academy in Algiers — had previously been expected to move into their permanent buildings this fall.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, the Orleans Parish School Board claims it has spent $5 million relocating schools and programs as a result of contractors’ mismanagement at Lafayette Academy’s South Carrollton Avenue building, which was closed last summer due to an asbestos release.

The Choice Foundation, which runs Lafayette charter school, is a co-plaintiff in the suit. The foundation says it has spent $1.3 million replacing possibly contaminated furniture and equipment at the campus.

Asbestos, a commonly used building material until the 1980s, is dangerous when its fibers becomes airborne. Many old schools may contain the fire-retardant material in floor tiles and adhesive, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation. It is generally safe unless renovations or other activities disturb the material.

Construction workers at Lafayette Academy botched an asbestos removal job last year. It was later discovered that students had been on campus during previous asbestos work, potentially exposing them to the harmful material, though a doctor later told parents the students were at little risk for asbestos-related illness.

After the latest asbestos release was made public last summer, the School Board moved some of Lafayette’s students into the old McDonogh 35 building on Kerlerec Street. That move was briefly delayed after contractors working to prepare the former high school for Lafayette also ran into asbestos problems. That asbestos release was cleaned up in August.

Lafayette was part of the state-run Recovery School District when construction at its building began in early 2018. In the lawsuit, the Choice Foundation says the RSD and its contractors withheld a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality report about asbestos problems at the school for a year.

On the west bank, the Rosenwald Collegiate Academy building, which the growing school has never occupied, is undergoing its own $1.3 million asbestos cleanup. The Collegiate Academies charter group discovered the problem before moving the new school’s freshman class into the building — former home of Julius Rosenwald Elementary — last year.

Both schools appear to have had asbestos releases under RSD contractors.

In the Lafayette suit, Choice claims RSD contractors Jacobs Engineering and CSRS Consortium withheld a report from LDEQ that identified problems with asbestos at the school. The report was created in July 2017, but Choice claims it was not made aware of it until a year later.

“Many parents and students were upset that they were not notified of the report earlier, which Choice understands led to some students switching to other schools,” the suit says.

It’s not clear why the remediation is taking so long. But Choice CEO James Fulton confirmed that Lafayette students will spend at least another year at a temporary campus as cleanup at the school continues. He said he’s skeptical that the work will be complete even by next summer.

“The latest tentative move-in date provided to us by RSD is July 1, 2020,” Fulton wrote in an email. “Given my extensive experience with construction projects, this date is likely (too) aggressive.”

In early 2017, workers were removing “asbestos flooring” from the third floor of the Lafayette building, according to a state report. “During that construction, Choice received complaints from faculty regarding smells and sounds that disrupted teaching and caused concern for their health,” the lawsuit states.

An inspector from LDEQ noted five areas of concern in a March 2017 visit. A report was issued in July 2017, according to the lawsuit.

Neither Choice nor the OPSB received a copy of the LDEQ report at that time, the suit says. “On the other hand, RSD and Jacobs were well aware of the report and findings at the time it was issued.”

The network and OPSB wouldn’t find out about the problems until the next summer, after a new phase of construction was underway.

Phase two of the asbestos removal project began in May 2018. This time, contractors hired Law Industries to perform the work. State inspectors visited the site soon after it started.

“On June 6, 2018, Jacobs and N-Y (an architectural firm also named as a defendant in the suit) discovered substantial asbestos contamination … and notified RSD,” the lawsuit states.

A week later, a state inspection inspection identified 13 areas of concern, and in mid-July, the RSD informed the school of the problem, forcing school leaders to find a new campus for the school year starting a few weeks later. At that time, school leaders assumed the remediation would be done for the 2019-20 school year. But it won’t be.

The continued use of a temporary campus at McDonogh 35, miles away from Lafayette’s permanent facility, may have affected enrollment, and as a result, the school’s revenue, the plaintiffs say.

“The Kerlerec campus was not what many students and parents expected when enrolling their children at Lafayette Academy and the location was not as convenient, which may have affected enrollment, which cannot be calculated at this point,” the lawsuit states.

The suit says Choice won’t know the true extent of its financial losses for a few years.

Asbestos cleanup began at the Julius Rosenwald Elementary building this spring, nearly a year after the problem was discovered. But with the addition of a sophomore class, Rosenwald Collegiate, named after a building it’s never occupied, has outgrown its current temporary campus.

The students will move from the old Habans School to William J. Fischer Elementary School for the 2019-20 school year. The Fischer building will become empty this summer because the district closed its former tenant, Fischer Accelerated Academy.

A district spokeswoman confirmed the $1.3 million cleanup at the Rosenwald site.

Though the school is slated to occupy Fischer for the entire 2019-20 school year, an OPSB spokeswoman said cleanup at its permanent site should be  completed by August.

Collegiate, a six-school charter network operating in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, discovered the problem after getting the keys to Rosenwald about a year ago.

LDEQ spokesman Gregory Langley said the state-run RSD controlled the building at the time of the asbestos release. The RSD “set about doing some work in the school to replace floor tiles,” he wrote in an email. “The work was not done under a plan and specifications.”

A document filed with the state in February said, “Previous floor tile abatement work probably caused the major fiber release.”

“The remediation work now underway is being monitored by LDEQ,” Langley wrote.

The Rosenwald school, like Lafayette Academy, is one of dozens of buildings that transferred from the control of the RSD back to the local school district in 2018 when nearly all public schools returned to OPSB oversight.

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