Even before that fateful day in August 2005, many of the schools in the city of New Orleans were already in recovery mode. Recovery School District (RSD) had taken over low-performing schools in order to bring about academic transformation.
Then, disaster struck. Hurricane Katrina brought near total devastation to the city, and its schools were not spared. More than 100 buildings were severely damaged or destroyed by one of the most destructive storms in history.
The entire city went silent for nearly a year and a half. When residents did begin coming back in 2007, RSD needed a way to provide seats for returning students, fast.
“After Katrina, their first priority had to shift from improving test scores to providing clean, dry, and safe buildings.”
“These were educators, not facilities experts,” explains Chris Pellegrin, AIA, CSRS Facilities Business Unit Leader. “After Katrina, their first priority had to shift from improving test scores to providing clean, dry, and safe buildings. They had to make sure kids had access to working bathrooms and that there were functional kitchens so students could eat. And they were in unfamiliar territory.”
Knowing it needed to bring in the experts, RSD turned to CSRS, in a joint venture with Jacobs Project Management Co., based on recommendations from the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana State University. Together with its partners, RSD embarked on a 10+ year journey to rebuild the city’s schools from the ground up.
In the early years of the recovery effort, RSD’s most immediate need was to provide seats for the returning students. The process of assessing the damage and determining which buildings could be repaired quickly was underway. In tandem with that emergency work, CSRS recommended and managed a Quick-Start Program to build five new schools in one year.
“It was quite a feat,” says Pellegrin. “But students were starting to return en masse and they needed a place to go. When you factor in the reality that for some of these students, the only meal they get all day is at school, it was pretty urgent for RSD to get some facilities up and running as fast as it could.”
In addition to the Quick Start Program, a satellite kitchen was designed and built to deliver meals to the open schools without operating kitchens. In under a year, the district had the kitchen in place along with 562,036 sq. ft. of new temporary buildings, providing seats for more than 6,000 students.
With its immediate needs addressed, RSD could turn its attention to the larger scope of work and the challenge of rehabbing and rebuilding the city’s entire portfolio of schools. As both CSRS and Jacobs were already enmeshed in the effort through management of the initial emergency work and the Quick Start Program, RSD recognized the value in continuing to keep these partners on board. CSRS and Jacobs teamed up to jointly respond to the district’s RFP. After winning the contract, creating the Master Plan and securing the funding to implement became the first order of business.
“At one point, RSD was willing to accept about $4 million a year from FEMA. But we knew they were entitled to much more.”
As a federally declared disaster area, New Orleans was entitled to FEMA public assistance. But just how much money it would receive was a matter of debate. “At one point, RSD was willing to accept about $4 million a year from FEMA,” Pellegrin says. “We knew they were entitled to much more.”
Rather than go through the painstaking process of negotiating with FEMA on each and every line item for every building and project, the CSRS Funding Team led the effort to secure a $1.8 billion precedent-setting FEMA settlement, which stood as the largest single settlement in FEMA history before Hurricane Sandy. To win the settlement, CSRS demonstrated how the costs for one project could be applied across the city’s entire portfolio of buildings. The CSRS team did much of the legwork to make the settlement a reality, visiting Washington to lobby for and advance the necessary legislation. As a result of the settlement, RSD benefited from a much more streamlined and efficient funding process, and it had the money it needed to start making significant progress on its Master Plan.
In addition to FEMA funding, CSRS helped RSD identify, maximize, and manage funding from a number of other sources, including the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and historic and new market tax credits. These funding sources have been essential to helping RSD realize its goals, especially in the early days of the project. Throughout the project and continuing today, CSRS helps RSD comply with federal program requirements and guidelines to ensure funds are not de-obligated.
Between 2007 and 2016, RSD worked through three phases of its Capital Program, including several reiterations of its Master Plan to accommodate changing repopulation patterns in the City of New Orleans. All told, RSD successfully built 3,877,000 sq. ft. of renovated or new educational spaces, resulting in 35,175 new or refurbished student seats. Over that time, RSD renewed its contract with CSRS and Jacobs three times, choosing to continue trusting its partners to move the project forward.
“Through a collaborative partnership, we’ve seen the staff of Recovery School District evolve from educators into adept operations people that know how to keep their facilities up and running.”
“RSD has faced much adversity and navigated through countless challenges over the past decade, especially in the early years when there was constant pressure to keep up with the repopulation and provide enough seats for the kids coming back,” says Pellegrin. “We’ve seen the staff evolve from educators into adept operations people that know how to keep their facilities up and running. And they’ve done that by working collaboratively, hand-in-hand with their partners at every step and persevering through a difficult situation.”
Currently in the fourth and final phase of the program, RSD is once again trusting CSRS and Jacobs to complete its portfolio of schools and improve the learning environment for every student in New Orleans. In this phase, CSRS will play an instrumental role in protecting the funding and preparing the grants for closeout. CSRS will continue to nurture the relationships it has built with community stakeholders over the years. Finally, CSRS will help RSD meet the challenges of program transition and prepare for its next Master Plan.
RSD has come a long way since taking over its first New Orleans school in 2004. The district has not only weathered the storm; it’s emerged stronger and more resilient than ever, well-prepared to meet its city’s educational needs for decades to come.
“I would highly recommend Jacobs/CSRS…they will listen to you, and provide a quality learning facility for every community that we can be proud of for generations to come.” – LaToya Cantrell, President, Broadmoor Improvement Association
Over the past seven years, CSRS, its joint-venture partner, and the leaders and educators of Orleans Parish have planned, facilitated funding, and are delivering 21st Century learning spaces for every public school student in New Orleans. Our goal is to complete the reconstruction helping the citizens of New Orleans to build a sustainable facility portfolio to serve the students for the next 50 years.
We have been engaged in a supporting role with the Master Planning process from the initial planning meetings in 2007 through three iterations of Master Plan revisions. Through these intense planning efforts, we have supported the RSD with technical expertise and community engagement services.
CSRS and its joint-venture partner continue to enhance efforts by proceeding to help balance the demographic needs with the building program, assess standards and specifications in light of economic conditions, and increase community engagement to help the RSD navigate future changes in the plan.