November 22, 2001
When Robert M. Lusher Elementary School on Willow Street caught fire Oct. 17, Tulane did what any good neighbor would do: The university offered the school and its 600 students a place to stay. Lusher students were bussed to Tulane’s campus after they evacuated their school when the fire broke out. The students’ parents picked them up from McAlister Auditorium that day.
But Tulane’s neighborliness didn’t end the day of the fire. By Monday, Oct. 22, school was in session for Lusher students at Tulane’s Uptown Square property. In a Herculean effort, in only four days, more than 20 Tulane employees, along with contractors, cleaning service workers, city inspectors and school board officials, transformed former retail space into a temporary school for kindergarten through fifth graders.
“It was truly a community project,” says Mike Jester, director of facilities management, who along with Peter Baricev, real estate manager, led the effort in which many people dropped everything and rearranged their schedules to provide a place for the children to attend school. There was no problem getting cooperation for the Lusher move, says Baricev.
“When someone is suffering, we ought to do what we can. “Look,” he adds, “their school burned. If the Lusher students had not had a place to go, they would have missed too much school.”
Soon after the fire, Kim Potter, president of the Lusher parent-teacher organization, called Billie Banker, President Scott Cowen’s executive assistant, asking if Tulane had any space for Lusher’s classes while repairs were made to the Lusher building. Banker consulted with Cowen, who immediately agreed to help the school. But where could Tulane put an elementary school with the university’s classes in full swing?
Banker then went to Tony Lorino, senior vice president for operations and chief financial officer, to inquire about using Uptown Square, a shopping center property on Broadway near the Mississippi River that the university acquired last spring.
According to Banker, Lorino replied, “Fine, but there is no electricity.” “Things moved very fast after that,” says Banker. The Lusher fire occurred on Wednesday. By Thursday, Lorino directed Baricev and Jester to do whatever it took to accommodate the school at Uptown Square. That’s when workers hit the fast-track and began to activate lights, air conditioning, heating, plumbing and locks in the former stores that had been empty for four years or more.
Friday morning, the power was still not on. But, Baricev, Jester and Orleans Parish public school officials took an early-morning tour of the place. “We went through the vacant spaces to see if they would work as classrooms,” says Baricev.
Once school officials approved the site, Baricev worked with electrical contractors and inspectors, Tulane plumbers, carpenters, mechanical engineers and architects, and City of New Orleans safety and permits officials to get use-and-occupancy permits. Signs and maps had to be produced. Traffic routes figured out. Merchants and the adjacent Farmers Market had to be forewarned. Additional space in non-Tulane-owned property at Uptown Square had to be negotiated. The fire marshal had to approve the setup. Security issues had to be addressed.
Whenever he ran into a snag, Baricev says he would tell people, “It has to happen and it has to happen now.” Mike Stringer, supervisor of support services for facilities services, says when he heard on Thursday afternoon about the possible move of Lusher, “I knew Tulane would take the ball and run with it.” So, Stringer says, “I took it upon myself to find out how many chairs and desks we had at Riverside [Tulane’s storage facility on the West Bank]. Thank God, we’d kept the chairs.”
Stringer rearranged his schedule on Friday to have a crew pick up the Riverside chairs and round up leftover chairs from the University Center. Early Saturday morning, Stringer and a crew of 16—12 Tulane employees and four temporary workers—met at Uptown Square to begin moving the Tulane furniture and other desks and chairs supplied by the Orleans Parish school system.
Jani-King, Tulane’s contracted cleaning service, sent a crew Saturday morning to clean the facilit and put it in order. All this hard work paid off. On Monday, 363 Lusher students went to class at Uptown Square. By Thursday, 507 students were in attendance. In his speedy site planning, Baricev decided to leave, as a pleasant gathering spot, the fountain flowing in Uptown Square’s courtyard. Students and teachers are delighted with the space.
Fourth grader Zachary Burkey says, “I think it’s like a hotel.” And teacher Robin Delamatre said during the second week of the school at Uptown Square, “The students are grateful to be back in a school setting. They like it here. They say it is beautiful. They think it is sophisticated. Everyone at Tulane has been wonderful.” Lusher students are scheduled to stay at Uptown Square until the end of November when their building will be ready for occupancy.
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