Judge says tax vote banners on N.O. public schools can stay up for now _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A group called "Justice and Beyond" is suing the Orleans Parish School Board, claiming that school officials are illegally displaying campaign signs on public school buildings like McMain High School. The School Board is hoping voters will pass a ballot measure dedicating an already existing tax for long-term maintenance costs.

Orleans Parish School Board employees can no longer hang new signs at local campuses urging people to vote on an upcoming tax measure for public schools, but they do not have to take down existing signs, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The signs don’t explicitly ask people to vote for the measure, but Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase noted that the banners, which tell people to “vote Dec. 6” and say the millage is “not a tax increase,” picture smiling people holding their thumbs up.

Orleans Parish School Board attorney Bill Aaron said the existing signs would remain in place until another hearing can be held Monday.

Tuesday’s hearing, the result of a lawsuit filed by attorney Willie Zanders, ended with a temporary restraining order barring installation of more signs.

Zanders is representing the group Justice and Beyond, which has sprung up in the past year or so as one of the school district’s most active critics, as well as other local groups.

The tax measure, which will appear on the Dec. 6 ballot, is only the latest dustup in the long struggle over the direction of public education in New Orleans.

It would not actually raise anyone’s property taxes. Instead, it would gradually shift money from an existing 4.97-mill tax and use it to pay for long-term upkeep of the city’s new school buildings. Right now, the tax is being used to pay off bond debt.

The measure faces resistance because a portion of the money would go to the Recovery School District, the state agency that took over most of the city’s schools shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Both the RSD and the OPSB, which kept a handful of schools, would receive a portion of the tax money to hire staff for coordinating repair work, among other tasks.

That part of the plan irks some of the local officials and activists who feel the RSD should no longer govern schools in New Orleans, including three School Board members who voted against putting the proposition before voters in the first place.

At question in the lawsuit is who controls the buildings where the signs are hanging, and whether the signs are an appropriate use of public funds. Public agencies are permitted to run educational campaigns about ballot measures, but they can’t encourage or discourage a position. Charter schools are public entities.

Banners were hanging Monday at Esperanza Charter School on Carrollton Avenue and in front of the old Carrollton Courthouse, owned by the School Board and used recently by Audubon Elementary.

No one in court could say how many signs are hanging on school properties across the city, though references also were made to banners at Pierre Capdau Elementary and Harriet Tubman Charter School.

Zanders stressed the matter’s urgency, despite its being a holiday week. “People are voting now,” he said.

Early voting runs through Saturday.

A disclosure on the banners says they were paid for by the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and that no public money was spent in producing them. Attorney Lee Reid is representing that association and its executive director, Caroline Roemer Shirley, both named as defendants in the suit.

Reid said the association hasn’t put any signs on public buildings, and the judge agreed that the association’s involvement is not an issue.

“They can pay for the banners,” Chase said. “That is their constitutional right.”

Attorneys met privately with the judge in her chambers for an hour before she issued her decision.

In the hallway outside the courtroom after the ruling was issued, Zanders said he will be adding individual charter schools and likely Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to the lawsuit. He also said the charter school association will provide him with the names of schools that requested banners.

Also at question is whether the schools with signs are polling places. That would be illegal, Chase said, but that issue was not addressed in the ruling.