The Orleans Parish School Board and several charter schools have agreed to remove banners encouraging people to vote on a school facility tax on the ballot in Saturday’s election.
The decision came after attorneys met behind closed doors with a Civil District Court judge on Monday.
Willie Zanders, the lawyer representing several community groups, filed a lawsuit against the School Board last month seeking the removal of banners that ask people to vote on the tax and depict smiling children giving a thumbs-up sign.
He said the signs amounted to the illegal use of public facilities and money to promote a vote for the tax, which would set up a standing maintenance program for nearly all New Orleans public school.
By law, public schools are allowed to conduct educational campaigns about ballot initiatives, but they cannot advocate for or against a particular measure. The judge in the case last week said the intent of the signs appeared to encourage a vote for the tax.
If the ballot measure is approved on Saturday, an already existing property tax would be extended and set aside to pay for maintenance of the city’s school buildings, many of which have been rebuilt or renovated since Hurricane Katrina. Right now, the tax is earmarked for paying off bond debt, which is scheduled to be retired by 2021.
The legal case over signs on school property got bogged down temporarily by questions over exacly who should be party to the lawsuit.
Many of the signs related to the vote were paid for by the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a private group. Zanders named that organization and Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley in the lawsuit, but Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase dismissed Shirley and her group from the suit.
Last week, an attorney for the organization said his clients did not have control over the buildings and hadn’t hung up any signs.
On Wednesday, Zanders added several charter school operators to the suit after the School Board said it did not control the charter-occupied buildings, or what signs hung on them.
Those late additions, coupled with court holidays, led to several requests for delays being filed in court Monday which put off a scheduled hearing until Thursday.
However, after meeting with Chase in her chambers for about 20 minutes Monday morning, attorneys for the charter schools and School Board said they would be removing signs from the buildings.
School Board attorney Bill Aaron said banners would be removed at the School Board’s six direct-run schools. While the School Board owns a majority of the buildings that charter schools occupy in New Orleans, they do not control those buildings.
Attorney Lee Reid was in court Monday representing seven charter school boards: New Orleans College Prep; Morris Jeff Community School; New Beginnings Schools Foundation; Firstline Schools, Inc.; KIPP New Orleans Schools; Advocates for Science and Math, and Advocates for Academic Excellence. He also represents the charter school association.
“We’ve consented to remove the banners,” Reid said after the private meeting with the judge.
A banner that had previously hung on the Old Carrollton Courthouse, owned by the School Board, was no longer there Monday morning, though one at Esperanza Charter School was still visible Monday.
“We await a final hearing on Thursday to see if, in fact, all signs have been taken down,” Zanders said.
Zanders said several of the signs many have violated state law that prohibits political signage at polling places.
“It is a misdemeanor to place a sign within 600 feet of a polling place,” Zanders said.
Many local schools serve as polling places, but that matter is not addressed in this lawsuit.
The hearing was reset for Thursday at 9 a.m, though lawyers on both sides agreed the hearing would not be necessary if all signs were removed by then.