Schoolhouse Rot

By Drew Lindsay — July 13, 1994 12 min read
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The Big Easy is no picnic for Ken Ducote. Crooked contractors and plodding architects are just routine headaches for the director of facility planning for the New Orleans public schools. On odd days, he’s tangled with bats nesting in attics, ghosts haunting classrooms built over a graveyard, and prostitutes plying their trade next to schools.

But Ducote’s ultimate frustration is the aging and crumbling kingdom over which he presides. Nearly half of the city’s 124 schools were built before World War II. The oldest opened its doors 142 years ago, just a few years before Louisiana boys slipped on the Confederate gray.

Over the years, the city’s swamplike climate has seeped into many of these relics and sapped their strength. Most are structurally sound, but almost all violate today’s safety, health, or environmental standards.

Later this month, the U.S. General Accounting Office will release preliminary findings from a nationwide survey of school facilities. If New Orleans is any indication, the news won’t be good. Ducote expects to close 25 schools--one-fifth of the total--over the next year. With virtually no money for repairs, he’s holding the proverbial finger in the dike. Should the dike break, disaster could sweep the entire school system.

Federal officials respond to all kinds of disasters--plane crashes, earthquakes, and floods all draw crowds from the nation’s capital. It’s no surprise, then, that Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin and G.A.O. officials made separate trips to tour the schools in New Orleans within the past six months.

On a recent muggy spring day, more visitors from Washington--reporters, this time--made the trek south to rubberneck. Ducote, dressed in the bureaucrat’s trademark sports coat, tie, and short-sleeved shirt, is grumbling about a contractor.

On looks alone, he could be Jay Leno’s stand-in. His wavy, salt-and-pepper hair and thick eyebrows frame a face strikingly similar to the late-night comedian’s. But while Leno specializes in glib commentary of the day, Ducote’s jokes reveal more frustration than irony.

“Our lives would be a lot easier if we believed in breaking contractors’ knees,’' he says with a sly grin.

His is the gallows humor of a man who has invested most of his life in his hometown and its schools, only to watch both steadily decline.

A native of New Orleans, 44-year-old Kenneth J. Ducote stayed close to home for all his schooling. His B.S. in mathematics came from Tulane University, and he earned both his M.S. in urban studies and his Ph.D. in education administration from the University of New Orleans.

His first job in the New Orleans school system was as a math teacher 23 years ago. He was the kind of teacher who showed up at school on Sundays to build cabinets in his classroom. Once, he says, he started a Metric Club because he “wanted the kids to know something that nobody else did.’'

But for the last 13 years, Ducote has been in charge of the buildings that house the 83,000 children who attend public school in New Orleans. In the facilities department’s conference room, Ducote sets a series of black-and-white maps of the city on an easel, each with red and blue dots stuck to the board to represent troubled schools.

On many of the maps, the colored dots obliterate the outlines of the French Quarter, the Louisiana Superdome, and other landmarks of New Orleans.

The city has torn down some of its oldest schools, but the warhorses that still stand are in desperate need of renovation to bring them in line with modern-day safety standards.

Roughly three-quarters of the city’s schools predate the nationwide effort to increase school safety that started with the 1958 fire at Chicago’s Our Lady of Angels Elementary School. That blaze took 95 lives. Ever since, Ducote says, schools have had to navigate an increasingly complex web of fire, health, environmental, and safety regulations.

Of the district’s 124 schools, only the two newest meet fire codes issued by the National Fire Protection Association. (See Education Week, June 8, 1994).

One of the most troublesome codes requires school officials to hold all prekindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st-grade classes on ground floors. Last year, the district was cited for 11 violations of this one code.

This spring, just two weeks after G.A.O. officials toured the 71-year-old Clark Senior High School, sparks from an electrical box in the attic set the building aflame. The students and staff evacuated safely, but the damage closed the school for the year.

“We think our buildings are safe,’' Ducote says. “We have a lot of fire drills, so we don’t think loss of life and limb is going to be a problem. Nevertheless, we know our buildings don’t meet what is considered the current reasonable, acceptable level of risk in our society, which is compliance with code.’'

If the modern regulatory era makes some of the New Orleans schools seem old, today’s technology boom makes them seem antique. “A lot of these buildings were built when the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment put in a school was a clock,’' Ducote says. Computers, CD-ROM’s, videocassette recorders, and other gadgets that are essential tools of the teaching trade today demand more power than older electrical systems can provide.

The systems in some schools can’t even provide juice for basic equipment. At the 117-year-old McDonogh 7 Elementary School, the teachers’ microwave oven sits on a table in the second-floor hall. Plugging it into an outlet in the staff lounge might overload the system.

Many classrooms have fans mounted above the blackboard, but their blades stand idle for lack of power. To cool one room, the staff has snaked an extension cord some 20 feet down a hall to another classroom on another circuit.

“This school can’t handle yesterday’s technology, much less tomorrow’s,’' says Gary Breaux, one of Ducote’s architects.

Some of Ducote’s worst headaches come from the 30 or so schools that were built only a generation ago in the post-World War II era. Those were the days of the baby boom, so architects nationwide built schools cheap and fast.

“In the back of my mind,’' Ducote says, “I can almost hear the people at public meetings say, ‘I don’t care if the school you build lasts only 10 years. Let the people 35 years from now worry about it.’''

Schaumburg Elementary School is one that Ducote worries about constantly. Even though it’s only 30 years old, it tops the list of schools likely to close in the next year.

Schaumburg Elementary was built with a construction budget of $10 per square foot--at least half of the normal expense for commercial projects at the time, according to Ducote. To avoid the cost of installing air conditioning, open-air breezeways replaced hallways wherever possible.

Today’s students and staff are now paying the price of this penny-pinching. Until recently, the custodian walked the school’s perimeter every morning to collect the gutters that had fallen off during the night. He’s stopped now--the gutters are all gone.

What’s more, the “open air’’ designs that produced such nifty cost savings on paper proved a poor match for New Orleans’s climate. The city’s annual rainfall averages 60 inches. In 1992, 82 inches fell, the same as fell in the tropical city of Manila in the Philippines.

With each storm, rainwater drops from the roof, pools, and then seeps into classrooms through the building’s rusted metal sides. Enough comes in to regularly flood and close one hallway with several inches of standing water.

“My children go to school in a third-world country,’' says Schaumburg Elementary Principal Mildred Notto.

The school also has been ravaged by Formosan termites, a variant of the moisture-loving insect brought to New Orleans by U.S. ships returning from the Far East after World War II and the Korean War. (See “Appetite for Destruction,’' page 31.)

Termites have infiltrated the network of six-inch-wide laminated wood beams that make up the school’s structural system. The total renovation cost at Schaumburg Elementary now stands at $3.7 million, but Ducote believes that if the termites continue to weaken the structure, that figure could top the $6 million mark.

With more than half a billion dollars in essential capital needs and less than $4 million to spend on repairs, New Orleans school officials have had to make some tough calls about what to fix.

“We don’t have any money for priorities,’' says Superintendent Morris L. Holmes. “Right now, we don’t even have money for emergencies. Seven or eight good emergencies will take all the money we’ve got.’'

Ducote maintains three lists of schools: those he expects to close in 30 days, those that will close in 90 days, and those that will close in 120 days. Like a business keeping creditors at bay, he shuffles money from one project to another, depending on which is closest to closure.

And, like in a bankruptcy, the end result generally pleases no one. McDonogh Elementary, for example, is due an $860,000 renovation. Yet, this spring the school board approved a recommendation from Ducote and Holmes to spend all but $100,000 of that money on projects at more than a dozen other schools.

At first, parents were furious. “It was like somebody came to you and said, ‘We’re going to take this money out of your wallet,’'' recalls Lucy L. Penny, the mother of a 5th grader at McDonogh Elementary.

After a visit from Holmes, however, parents saw the logic behind the move. “We think he made a good decision at this time,’' says John P. Bryson, the president of McDonogh Elementary’s P.T.A. “Keep the schools open. That’s what’s important to the city of New Orleans.’'

Superintendent Holmes says that sometime soon he’ll take a bond issue to the voters. Since 1980, ballot propositions have contributed some $140 million to school-construction coffers and funded building two replacement schools.

But New Orleans residents may not have much left to offer. More than a third of the city’s population lives in poverty, a rate second only to Detroit’s. The poverty rate among school-age children--45 percent--is more than double the 17 percent rate nationwide and ranks highest in the country.

Holmes believes that federal policy over the past decade has favored suburbs over cities, and he argues that the federal government has a moral obligation to help repair the nation’s urban schools. “The cities have literally been raped,’' he says. “They have literally been raped to the point where there are few tax bases left. Our federal government needs to shift its policies.’'

Ducote argues that if the federal government is going to set national standards in such subjects as science, it ought to help districts make the grade. “If a school’s plumbing system is so antiquated that it doesn’t have running water in laboratories, how is it going to enhance science?’' he asks. “If the school doesn’t have enough classrooms on the first floor to meet code, how are we going to meet the national goal of every child being ready for the 1st grade?’'

At least one lawmaker agrees. U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, has introduced legislation for federal grants to districts with rundown schools. An amendment calling for $400 million in such funds has been attached to legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has cleared the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

The Illinois Democrat also called for the G.A.O. study, which later this month will report preliminary results from its survey of facilities in 10,000 schools. It is the first such federal study in 30 years. A 1989 Education Writers Association report put the price tag of fixing the nation’s school infrastructure at $125 billion. Most expect that the new G.A.O. report will show that number is just the down payment.

New York City school officials put their total capital needs--including repairs and new construction--at $7.5 billion; in the District of Columbia, a judge last month ordered school officials to fix 5,700 fire-code violations--at a cost of $90 million.

Something has to change in how schools finance infrastructure repairs, contends Glen I. Earthman, a professor of education administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who studies facilities planning. “We’re doing business the same way we did before,’' he says.

The episode is ancient history now, but Ducote still chuckles at its absurdity. A few years ago, he testified before the city school board on the dilapidated condition of New Orleans’s more than 400 portable classrooms. A particularly ornery board member--and a frequent Ducote critic--pounced on the chance to dress him down publicly.

Why, he asked Ducote, did you build these portables and subject our children to these conditions?

“Sir,’' he answered, “these portables were built right after World War II. I was in grade school at the time.’'

While Ducote sometimes gets assigned the blame for the schools’ poor conditions, he gets more frustrated that he can’t roll up his sleeves and fix things himself.

“I don’t do anything,’' he says. “I have to get stuff done without actually doing it. I don’t pick up a single hammer, I don’t design a single plan, I don’t write a single check, I don’t coordinate a single project. Somehow, I have to piece it together, get the money, and do it in an efficient way--as well as keep the massage parlor from opening up next door.’'

Without money to build the replacement schools the district needs, Ducote’s working to build community trust in the system. In Louisiana, patronage has infected politics for generations, and parents say that many New Orleans residents assume the school-construction projects are awarded to architects, contractors, and voters who are friends of school board members.

“There is still a sense, particularly in New Orleans, that it all depends on if somebody knows somebody,’' says Christine H. Jenkins, a parent with two children in the New Orleans public school system. “The person with the contacts is going to get their needs addressed.’'

With a capital-projects advisory committee made up of parents, administrators, and teacher representatives, Ducote has been working for the past year to increase the department’s credibility in the public eye. Committee members give Ducote high marks for pitching their suggestions to the board and for making good on the district’s commitment to include parents in capital-projects decisions.

“It’s a model of openness,’' says Mary Anne Barton, a committee member and a research associate monitoring the city’s school finances for the Bureau of Governmental Research, a city-government watchdog group. This spring, the group awarded Ducote’s department one of its 10 “Excellence in Government’’ awards.

About a year ago, Ducote almost left the department when he was offered the position of executive director of the city’s planning commission. Word of his possible departure got around, he says, and “several parents and principals called and laid it on heavy. One of them had gone to church and lit a candle and prayed to God that I would change my mind. That made me feel good, you know? So I told the city to forget about it.’'

“I have a personal agenda here,’' he says. “I would like, 40 years from now, if somebody could pull out a file where it would show that Ken Ducote put together a proposal, and the board approved it, and the voters voted for the financing, and the school got built.’'


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