The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into constructing new school buildings in New Orleans. What the agency will not do, however, is pay for upkeep, something that worries locals who remember the woeful state of many school buildings before Hurricane Katrina.
Soon, though, there may be a plan in place for long-term maintenance, one that draws on the same charter school philosophy that has guided education officials in New Orleans since the storm.
The proposal under discussion would use money from an existing property tax earmarked for paying off debt, with each school maintaining its own individual account to fund repairs.
That would be in keeping with the general approach to public education that now prevails in New Orleans. All but a handful of the city’s public schools are independent charters, with leeway to make their own decisions on curriculum, hiring and other matters.
Under the new funding plan, they would make their own decisions on building upkeep as well, rather than leaving that power in the hands of a central office.
A collective of civic groups has been quietly lobbying for the plan, and it cleared the state Legislature in the spring. The question now is whether voters will OK the idea, because any change in how the board’s property tax is spent will need their approval.
If debate at the Orleans Parish School Board is any indication, it will be a fight to get the plan over that final hurdle. The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to put the question on a December ballot, but a 4-3 committee vote last week divided board members along familiar lines.
“I have some problems with this legislation,” member Ira Thomas said, arguing that state lawmakers should have consulted with the board before passing the bill that spells out how the plan will work.
Thomas objects to giving money directly to autonomous charter schools, which he says haven’t been responsive enough to complaints from parents. And he does not like the idea that the Recovery School District, the state agency that took control of most public schools in the city after Katrina, would get a small cut of the money to establish a central office for supervising how repairs at its schools’ buildings are carried out.
Leslie Ellison, who joined Thomas and Cynthia Cade in voting against the plan, also objects to the RSD playing any kind of role, though she is not opposed to sending money directly to charters. “We don’t want our citizens to believe they’re voting on a facilities upkeep plan when in fact we’re creating a mechanism for the RSD to continue to exist,” she said.
Anger at the RSD, whose leaders have made scores of controversial decisions over the years, certainly could hurt the plan’s chances with voters.
Simple anti-tax sentiment could be a factor as well. A “yes” vote would not raise anyone’s taxes, but if the measure fails, the existing tax will begin to shrink in 2016 and disappear altogether by 2021, when the debt it was earmarked to finance will be paid off. The proposed ballot measure would extend the tax through 2025.
The last tax-related ballot measure to face voters in New Orleans — a proposal to extend and slightly increase the property tax devoted to the Audubon Nature Institute — failed by a 2-1 margin in March.
Still, the plan seems likely to clear the board on Tuesday with the same 4-3 vote that approved it in committee, and it will have backing from a coalition of civic organizations including the New Orleans Business Council, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and groups that represent the city’s charter schools.
If approved, the property tax in question would produce about $14 million a year. Another $16 million or so would come from a district sales tax, which the Legislature was able to redirect without going to voters.
Individual schools would maintain accounts, investing the money in much the same way that public pension funds do, though bound by state rules that allow for only relatively safe investment choices.
There also would be tight restrictions on the way that money could be spent. It would be limited to major repairs such as a new roof or boiler. Any expenditure — except for emergency repairs — would need approval from either the School Board or the RSD. Both districts would set up maintenance offices with staff dedicated to making sure schools comply with all of the rules.
The districts also would use a cut of the tax proceeds to maintain a fund that schools could draw upon, in the form of zero-interest loans, for emergency repairs they could not afford on their own.