Schoolhouse Rot

Most public school students in New Orleans have never heard of Ken Ducote, but he's trying to keep a roof over their heads

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The Big Easy is no picnic for Ken Ducote. Crooked contractors and plodding architects are just routine headaches for the New Orleans public schools’ director of facility planning. 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 swamp-like climate has seeped into many of these relics and sapped their strength. Most are still structurally sound, but almost all of them violate today’s safety, health, or environmental standards.

As a result, Ducote may have to close 25 schools 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. On looks alone, Ducote could be Jay Leno’s stand-in. His wavy, salt-and-pepper hair and thick eyebrows frame a face strikingly similar to the comedian’s. But while Leno specializes in glib commentary of the day, Ducote’s humor reveals 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 adult life in his hometown and its schools, only to watch both steadily decline.

The 44-year-old Ducote took his first job in the New Orleans school system as a math teacher 23 years ago. But for the last 13 years, he has been in charge of the buildings that house the city’s 83,000 public school students. In a district conference room, he displays a series of city maps with red and blue dots placed to represent troubled schools. The dots obliterate the outlines of the French Quarter, the Louisiana Superdome, and other New Orleans landmarks. The city has torn down some of its oldest schools, but the warhorses that still stand are in desperate need of renovation. 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.

This past spring, just two weeks after federal investigators 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 have a lot of fire drills, so we don’t think loss of life and limb is going to be a problem,” Ducote says. “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 New Orleans’ schools seem old, today’s technology 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-ROMs, videocassette recorders, and other high-tech tools of the teaching trade today demand more power than older electrical systems can provide.

The systems in some schools can’t provide enough juice for basic electrical 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. “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 during the post-World War II era. Those were the days of the baby boom; schools nationwide were built 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 was built with a construction budget of $10 per square foot—half of the normal expense for commercial projects at the time. 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 collecting gutters that had fallen off the roof during the night. He’s stopped now—the gutters are all gone. What’s more, the “open air” design that produced such nifty cost savings on paper proved a poor match for New Orleans’ climate. The city’s annual rainfall averages 60 inches. With each storm, rainwater drips from the roof, pools, and then seeps into classrooms through the building’s rusted metal siding. “My children go to school in a third-world country,” says Mildred Notto, Schaumburg’s principal.

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. 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, the district has had to make some tough decisions about what to fix. “We don’t have any money for priorities,” says superintendent Morris Holmes. “Right now, we don’t even have money for emergencies.”

Ducote maintains three lists of schools: those he expects to close in 30 days, 90 days, and 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, last 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. But after a visit from Holmes, they saw his logic. “We think he made a good decision at this time,” says John Bryson, president of McDonogh’s PTA. “Keep the schools open. That’s what’s important to the city of New Orleans.”

Superintendent Holmes plans to take a bond issue to the voters. But New Orleans residents may not have much 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,” he says, “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.

At least one lawmaker agrees. U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., has introduced legislation for federal grants to districts with run-down 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.

At Moseley-Braun’s request, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has been studying school facilities nationwide and plans to release a series of reports on the topic this fall. It’s the first such federal study in 30 years. A 1989 Education Writers Association report put the price tag of repairing the nation’s schools at $125 billion. But most experts predict that the GAO tally will make that number look more like a down payment. New York City school officials estimate that their capital needs alone would cost about $7.5 billion.

Ducote sometimes gets blamed for the poor conditions of New Orleans’ schools. But what frustrates him more is that he can’t roll up his sleeves and fix things himself. “I have to get stuff done without actually doing it,” he says. “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 has been working to build community trust in the system. For the past year, for example, he has been working with a capital-projects advisory committee made up of parents, administrators, and teacher representatives. 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.

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. “Several parents and principals called and laid it on heavy,” he says. “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.”

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Pages 12-15

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