While it’s provoking some quarrels between state and local officials, we see a New Orleans master plan for schools more or less on track but with some important caveats about the city’s future growth and the flexibility of local institutions to respond to changes.
In a wide-ranging assessment of the master plan — almost $2 billion all told will be spent — the state Legislative Auditor’s Office questioned some of the projections upon which the building or renovation of the city’s schools are based.
We are pleased by the auditor’s oversight, because while some of the hurricane recovery funds for the program are seen as “free” money, they are in fact taxpayer dollars from all of us. And as construction costs have escalated up to about $250 per square foot in many cases, those dollars are going to have to be watched carefully. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not Santa Claus but a dispenser of money we have all paid in taxes.
Some of the major concerns raised by the auditor’s report, though, have come as no surprise to the managers of the school construction program, officials of both the Orleans Parish School Board and the state’s Recovery School District.
The local officials point out that more young students are entering the system than expected. That puts pressure on elementary school facilities and, for the moment, leads to a bit of an oversupply in high school classrooms.
The state and local differences of opinion are not really big arguments, in our view, but matters of interpretation.
The enrollment projections the auditor cited are invalid because they include students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools, RSD Chief Facilities Officer Ronald Bordelon and School Board Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith said in responses to the auditor’s report.
Other calculations do not include those students, and without them, there is less than a 5 percent difference between projections and actual enrollment, the officials said.
However, Legislative Auditor Darryl Purpera said the projections were valid because officials have used them in the past to determine school capacities. State-funded vouchers for private school students are another statistical source of comment.
School officials also chided the auditor for including “swing space,” or temporary school buildings, in his assessment. He responded that it was appropriate to include these facilities in calculations while they are in use.
We don’t see these disputes as tragic. The fact is that the post-Katrina New Orleans school landscape — not to mention the social and economic framework around it — has been in a great state of flux. We’re not surprised that projections of as little as two years ago are going awry, but the auditor is entirely correct to worry that we don’t build far too much space for today’s system.
Over time, with growth, there will be use for these new permanent classrooms, so long as proper maintenance is not sacrificed to short-term budget difficulties at the local or state level.