Washington Elementary

Washington Elementary School in south Kenner, photographed in Wednesday March 4, 2020. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Jefferson Parish School Board members have been talking with an unnamed municipal entity about possibly taking over Washington Elementary School, one of the schools that the district slated for demolition in the restructuring plan approved in April.

Washington Elementary, a Kenner school founded in 1936 that serves primarily Black students, was one of six schools the district planned to demolish and sell under the sweeping plan. 

Others include Butler Elementary, Helen Cox High School, Mildred Harris Elementary, Haynes Academy and Thomas Jefferson Academy. The board voted in May to award Hewitt-Washington & Associates the contract for the demolition of Washington Elementary, a $300,000 project.

At a Jefferson Parish School Board meeting on Wednesday several board members said negotiations over the fate of Washington Elementary were ongoing. 

Board member Clay Moise said the district is in discussion with another municipal organization that would use the facility "long term" but declined to say which one.

“Since those discussions have not matured sufficiently I’m not prepared to identify who that is and how far we’ve come along in that discussion but I will say that it is probable and I’ll leave it at that,” Moise said.

In an interview on Thursday, Moise said the district would prefer a property swap and that the entity has a need for use of the school up to five years.

Though nothing has been formalized, Board member Derrick Shepherd said that he had been in preliminary talks with the city of Kenner about buying the school and putting a head start early childhood program at the location. 

Meanwhile Kenner Police Chief Keith Conley said he had had informal discussions with city officials about using the school as a police training facility, given its layout is similar to other schools in Kenner and it has ample space in the gym for self-defense tactics training. The department currently trains in a building across from Heritage Hall but have requested funding to build a new training facility.

Any training that takes place at the school would not involve live fire, Conley said. 

Under the board's reorganization plan, two new elementary schools will be built, one on the west bank at the site of St. Ville Elementary in Harvey and one on the East Bank at Bunche Elementary.

Appraisers approved

The board on Wednesday approved a list of appraisers who will evaluate the properties once the schools have been demolished. The School Board or facilities department will choose from three people, Henry Tatje, William Baldwin and Wayne Sandoz.

The board also adopted a policy that calls for a request for qualification for a licensed real estate broker to sell the properties.

Board member Rick Johnson was the only no vote on both items. Board member Derrick Shepherd was absent. 

Johnson said he has not been involved in any discussions between board members and municipal entities. Board President Ralph "Rem" Brandt Jr. said at the meeting that only the current board president and vice president, as well as last year’s leadership, have been involved in discussions.

Demolition of schools

A spokesperson for Jefferson Parish public schools did not answer inquiries about whether a timeline for demolition of any of the schools has been set.

Moise said an update on demolition plans will be available next week.

Lauren Winkler, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said a group advocating for Washington Elementary, "Supporters of Washington," has applied for historic preservation status with U.S. National Register of Historic Places and asked the board to not demolish it until a determination is made. 

If that status is granted, she said, the board’s options for the property would be significantly limited.

“Supporters of Washington does not want Washington Elementary to be demolished, does not want the school and the land it sits on to be sold and instead really envisions a richer future for this property," Winkler said. "One where all members of the community are welcome to learn about the history of the school, a place where the community might be able to receive continuing education, childcare, and other resources that will help families."