NEW ORLEANS – School buildings in the Crescent City will become monuments to our differences instead of the beacons of learning they are supposed to be if New Orleanians reject a preservation program for educational facilities in the voting booth on Dec. 6.
It’s a funding conflict that mirrors power disputes around the country over whether the states, or local, elected boards should control schools.
Anything but a vote to pass the measure ignores what New Orleans children went through before and immediately after Hurricane Katrina.
For instance, in 2006 I challenged candidates vying for the 2nd District of Louisiana Congressional seat to serve as substitute teachers to teach a civics lesson of their choice. Most candidates including then incumbent Bill Jefferson accepted the Substitute Teachers Challenge held at John McDonough High School. The intent of the challenge was to raise awareness of the conditions of post-Katrina schools. Through student evaluations, the highest rated substitute teacher received a public endorsement.
My 10-year-old son accompanied me to view one politico teach a lesson on the three branches of government. Within the organized chaos between bells that signal the end and beginning of classes, my son asked to go to the bathroom. Naturally we walked briskly to the nearest restroom only to be turned away by a sign that informed us that broken plumbing made the toilets inoperable. After relieving himself in a working bathroom on another floor, my son went to the water fountain to get a drink.
As his lips kissed the water, students from all angles leaped to his rescue. They shouted, “Don’t drink from there!” “That water will make you sick!” I thought – water that makes you sick isn’t water. Nevertheless, heroic students explained to me that the water systems weren’t reliable and many students got sick by drinking from the fountains. That was why I wanted elected officials, even at the federal level, to walk in teachers’ shoes.
During the same week, I witnessed rain pour through the auditorium ceiling, cold lunches being served due to flooded out kitchen equipment, broken metal detectors (good riddance) and a host of higher-end, capital expenses (roof, boiler, electrical systems) as well as lower level problems, many of which probably existed before Katrina.
New Orleans never dedicated adequate funding to maintain and preserve its school buildings. When public school advocates point to the need for equitable per pupil expenditures, many miss the need to care for students’ academic homes. We literally need equity in the buildings. Maintained school buildings provide safe educational spaces, and they increase the value of the homes around the school. The inability to maintain John Mac created an unsafe learning environment, which devalued our children. In addition, we devalued historic Treme.
New Orleanians know too well that storms will come, but can you stand the rain? Can we agree that a healthy reserve for capital maintenance is in our best interest?
Agreeing to maintain our new buildings requires a “yes” vote on Dec. 6. The one time Federal Emergency Management Agency money that is currently being used towards the restoration, construction and demolition of facilities won’t maintain the schools once it’s expended.
Democratic State Representative Walt Leger sponsored ballot initiative Act 543, which is a law to extend the current property tax collection. The city currently collects property tax amounting to $15.5 million per year, to pay off its long-term investments. Act 543 would simply extend that funding through 2025 to provide a revenue source for a schools facilities preservation program.
However, a decades long battle for the local control of schools is keeping us from agreeing on basic needs. Since the Louisiana Department of Education’s Recovery School District assumed managerial jurisdiction of most schools in New Orleans, the question of who controls New Orleans’ schools has been ostensibly answered – for now, the state and to a lesser extent the elected New Orleans Public School Board. A drained New Orleans Public School Board technically oversees 22 schools, the Recovery School District, 57. Opponents of state takeover decry “taxation without representation” and believe the measure only solidifies the dual system structure.
I agree with critics of Act 543 on the point that having multiple managers defies some of the logic that charter providers advocated for – removing bureaucracy. I also think that neither district has proven to be a persnickety steward of public funds. After individuals’ missteps in both The New Orleans Parish Board and the Recovery School District, I’m resolved in the fact that malfeasance is more a function of competency and character as opposed to government structure. However, to not prepare for an inevitable major malfunction is to add to a legacy of fiscal irresponsibility.
I do want a unified system. But the funding of our schools is an opportunity to find the common ground to move forward. Instead of finding unity by protecting our facilities, we’re exacerbating the fight that seemingly will outlive our unprotected new and refurbished schools.
It’s eight years since my older son and I walked through John McDonough High School. I now have another son who will turn 4 years old in December. I hope one day that he can attend a John Mac that is as pristine a facility as it is an academic center.
A “yes” vote for Act 543 is for a needed facilities preservation program and something much more. Children need to see models of how adults can rally behind opportunities in spite of their differences.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.