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This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Next month, New Orleans voters will decide whether to extend an expiring property tax that finances repairs to public school buildings, but the measure is facing resistance from unlikely people: some members of the city’s school board.
Indeed, three out of the seven Orleans Parish School Board members voted against even sending the question to voters. That’s because the measure takes millions of dollars now controlled by the school board and puts them in the hands of the Recovery School District (RSD), even though the state-run, all-charter district isn’t mentioned anywhere in the ballot proposition.
The narrow vote shows just how much some board members are concerned about the expansion of control and power at the RSD. This financial struggle is playing out at a time when the board thought improving schools would be returning from the RSD, which was originally created to temporarily operate and improve failing schools.
Instead, schools that could have moved back to local control have not done so, and the state-authorized RSD is settling in as a long-term governance structure, parallel to the elected school board.
And while each entity eyes the other with some disdain, their futures continue to be intertwined because they’re required to cooperate on such things as building repairs. This tax is seen by some as having a secondary effect of financially disentangling the two districts.
Though the existence of the school board is enshrined in the state constitution, the number of students it oversees and how much power it continues to wield is another matter.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Recovery School District swept up 107 of about 125 schools in the city. Those that were reopened and survived are now all charter schools. Schools under control of the Orleans Parish School board enroll only about 25 percent of the city’s public-school population.
At issue now is a property tax that brings in about $15 million annually. Voters in 1995 approved the new tax to finance a $175 million renovation program for the schools. It’s set to expire in 2021. The proposition before voters on Dec. 6 is whether to keep the tax and dedicate the money to future capital improvements.
Few dispute that the city’s schools need further repair money, even after a post-Katrina federal infusion of $1.8 billion in rebuilding money. While eye-popping, that figure simply wasn’t enough to help every school. Further, this dedicated money would ensure that recently opened schools will have repair money in coming years, as inevitable problems present themselves.
The argument, though, is over who should hold that money and make the decisions.
Paying for school repairs was much simpler 20 years ago, when there was a single entity controlling, assigning, building and repairing all the public schools in the city.
Now, the school board owns all the buildings, but the RSD decides who occupies most of them. The RSD and the board jointly planned how to spend federal renovation money. And upkeep is generally the responsibility of the independent charter operator that occupies a building. (The RSD became an all-charter district this year, providing general oversight to 57 schools run by 24 charter organizations. The Orleans Parish School board oversees 14 charter schools and operates six direct-run, or traditionally run, schools.)
In fact, it’s so complicated that the districts themselves don’t quite seem to know yet exactly how the money would be managed.
Dissention on the School Board
School board member Leslie Ellison voted against the resolution to put the tax before voters, saying in a recent interview that the proposition is misleading. “On the ballot in December, it’s going to show millage for Orleans Parish School Board,” Ellison said. “It’s not going to say anything about RSD.”
Board members Cynthia Cade and Ira Thomas also voted no, resulting in a 4-3 approval vote. The resolution was offered by board member Woody Koppel and seconded by member Sarah Usdin. Members Nolan Marshall Jr. and Seth Bloom also voted for the measure.
Asked if the proposition was deceptive, Ellison said “Oh definitely. It’s misleading. It’s deceitful. Perhaps that may not have been the intent but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”
Ellison said she is not against establishing a facilities fund.
“I support redirecting the funds, however, not to an entity that has no accountability to the public at all,” Ellison said.
She’s referring to the fact that the RSD does not answer to locally elected officials.
Ellison said she would have preferred waiting a year. In that time, she would have pushed for state legislation to keep the facility money under the school board’s control.
Her colleagues on the board who support the tax say the discussion shouldn’t be about political control, but about the conditions of the schools.
The millage that is winding down was passed in the 1995 when schools were in rough shape, said Marshall, the board’s president.
“I’ve lived and worked in the schools during the period in which we had no money to maintain the buildings,” Marshall said. “It was deplorable conditions, and I don’t ever want to see us go back to that.”
As to whether the school board should oversee the capital work on the buildings it owns, Marshall said that’s a question for the governor and the legislature.
“We didn’t create the RSD, and we’re not going to abolish the RSD,” he said.
“I’m not going to deprive the schools of the maintenance money they need because I don’t like how the state has given us the RSD to control some of our schools,” he said.
Board member Usdin also voted in favor of the resolution.
“I believe that it’s really good for all of our schools,” she said. “It’s really not about governance or type of school for me.”
Longtime facilities manager Ken Ducote agrees. Ducote works as a consultant for the Orleans Parish School Board and a collective of locally authorized charters. For many years before Katrina, he was the top facilities person within the New Orleans school system.
The money is needed, he says, whether or not everyone agrees on how it will make its way to the buildings.
“We’ve already been going nine years and haven’t solved all these governance questions,” Ducote said.
Regardless of who’s controlling the buildings, they need to be preserved he said. And while some people dislike the Recovery School District’s presence, Ducote says the buildings — and, consequently, children’s education — shouldn’t suffer.
“A lot of those negative feelings are justified but they are misplaced when they are applied to preserving the buildings,” he said.
The school board’s interim superintendent, Stan Smith, supports the tax because there isn’t now a dedicated source of capital projects, such as roof replacements or other large-scale repairs.
“It’s important that we have a source of funds to maintain them in a condition that keeps them safe and secure for students,” Smith said.
Recovery School District officials support the proposition because, though the local School Board still owns school facilities, when a failing school was turned over to the Recovery district, the responsibility of maintaining the building went with it.
The Recovery School District’s facilities chief Tiffany Declour said this year’s budget for capital work was $2.8 million for 64 facilities, which is not enough, she says.
Even if the tax doesn’t pass, a new law passed over the summer requires the school board to share part of its general sales-tax revenue with the RSD on a per-pupil basis.
Of the 42,000 public school students in the two New Orleans districts, about 70 percent attend RSD charter schools. So the RSD would get 70 percent of the tax money.
If voters don’t approve the Dec. 6 measure, the property tax dedicated to paying off old debts will shrink as the 1995 bonds are paid off gradually over the next few years. If approved, the proportion going to the new facilities funds will increase with each passing year before taking in all of the money raised after 2021.
Marta Jewson is the education reporter for The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast working in partnership with The Hechinger Report to bring coverage of New Orleans public schools.