The Orleans Parish School Board will ask voters to approve a plan for funding the long-term upkeep of the city’s new and renovated school buildings. A typically divided board voted 4-3 on Tuesday evening to put the question on the Dec. 6 ballot.
The plan needs voter approval and an OK from the State Bond Commission because it involves extending a property tax originally earmarked for paying off debt and redirecting the proceeds toward maintenance.
But the plan has run into controversy for other reasons, chiefly because a small portion of the tax proceeds would go to the Recovery School District, the state agency that took control of most New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina.
There were also concerns about the fact that independent charter schools would receive tax money directly. Charters, which answer to their own boards and now make up the bulk of the school system in New Orleans, would each have separate maintenance accounts, in keeping with the decentralized approach to public education that state officials have embraced.
Opponents of the state takeover and the move to charter schools pounced on the funding proposal as an extension of both.
“It’s public money that’s going to private boards,” said Willie Zanders, a lawyer who has been one of the RSD’s most vehement critics. “That’s not right. To me, it sounds like malfeasance.”
On the other hand, representatives of the Business Council of New Orleans, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and the city’s charter schools spoke in favor of the plan.
“This would at least partially protect the $2 billion investment that is being made in school facilities in this city,” said Bob Brown, of the Business Council, referring to the $1.8 billion that FEMA has committed to the construction program. “That’s a lot of money. That is a lot of infrastructure. And those assets deserve protection.”
The proposal, whose particulars were spelled out in a bill that cleared the Legislature this year, would raise about $15.5 million for maintenance annually by about 2021. That would be combined with another $16 million or so from an existing sales tax, which the Legislature was able to redirect toward maintenance costs without voter approval.
Instead of that money going to a central office, each school would get a portion of it for its own maintenance fund. Schools themselves would decide when a boiler or a roof needs replacing, but they would have to get approval from their governing body — either the School Board or the RSD — before actually spending any of the money.
Both districts would get a portion of the money for staff members who would enforce the rules and for a special fund that schools could draw upon should their own accounts not be enough to cover the cost of emergency repairs.
Debate Tuesday reflected the persistent divide on the School Board over how to view the RSD and charters. Board members Leslie Ellison, Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade voted against the plan, insisting that the board itself, as an elected body, should control how tax dollars are spent.
“The RSD was created as a temporary state agency for the purpose of taking over academically failing schools,” Ellison said. “Its purpose in Orleans is finished.”
Members Sarah Usdin, Woody Koppel, Seth Bloom and Nolan Marshall Jr. went into the meeting more or less knowing they had the majority, and only Marshall made any extended remarks.
He said it made no sense to hold up the funding plan with debate about broader issues that aren’t going to be resolved in the short term.
“We’re not going to solve the governance issue,” he said. “We’re not going to solve the traditional versus charter issue. The only thing we’re going to solve is whether schools are going to be repaired going forward.”