Long before Hurricane Katrina laid waste to more than 80 percent of New Orleans' public schools, many of those buildings were already in serious disrepair.
Over decades, the Orleans Parish School Board had failed to adequately maintain its aging campuses. And students paid the price, attending classes in buildings where boilers failed in midwinter, water fountains didn't work and plaster ceilings buckled and peeled because of leaky roofs.
Despite that history, School Superintendent Henderson Lewis is proposing a change to state law that would allow him to divert millions of tax dollars away from building maintenance so that he can "fill the gaps" in instructional needs.
On Thursday, the OPSB voted unanimously to support Lewis' proposal, which appeared on a wish list of 10 legislative agenda items that cover everything from teacher pay raises to better access to quality pre-kindergarten programs.
Lewis wants to free up $10 million annually from a facilities fund projected to bring in $45 million a year from property and sales taxes. He wants to use that money to increase schools' per pupil allotment, as well as to provide additional funding for special education and teacher recruitment.
"We have a hard job to do. Resources are not enough to meet the needs," Lewis said. "We must make tough decisions, set priorities and, most importantly, fill the gaps."
No board members commented on the proposal.
At issue is a law passed five years ago by the Legislature that dedicated annual tax money for the future maintenance and repairs of Orleans Parish schools. It came in the wake of a $1.8 billion schools rebuilding plan largely financed by one-time FEMA funds, which is still wrapping up.
Money for the 2014 initiative, known as School Facility Preservation Program, came from two sources. One, a 4.97-mill property tax, was approved by voters. It replaced an already existing tax used to pay off pre-Katrina school construction bonds slated to expire in 2021.
The second part of the fund, which didn't require voter approval, redirected part of the school system's sales tax — .23 of a penny — to be used for maintenance of school buildings.
Lewis' proposal would redirect about half of the revenue from the sales tax and use it for academics instead.
The proposal is broken down into three parts, according to Mary Garton, the OPSB assistant superintendent.
Of the $10 million a year that would be freed up, $4 million would go directly to schools, allowing an increase in per-pupil funding of $100.
Between $2 million and $2.5 million a year would go to programs for students with special needs, such as the Center for Resilience, a program for children with diagnosed behavioral health disabilities, and Travis Hill School, which opened in the city's jail for youthful offenders.
Another $3 million annually would go to something called the System-Wide Needs Fund and would help with priorities like district-wide teacher retention.
The district also proposes some changes in how the remaining $35 million a year for maintenance would be divvied up, funneling more money into schools with older buildings.
The 2014 commitment dedicated $500 per pupil to schools that were newly renovated and $650 per student to older schools. Lewis wants to keep the funding the same for newer schools and increase it to $800 per student for schools with buildings in greater disrepair.
Lewis' 10-part legislative agenda also asks state lawmakers to raise per-pupil funding, finance teacher pay raises, preserve TOPS, direct state funding to struggling students, and provide more rehabilitation in juvenile justice education settings.
The agenda also calls for more state funding for mental health care; expanded access to quality pre-K services; initiatives that would allow retired teachers to more easily return to work; and a policy that would let only certified officers enter schools with guns.
District officials say that the proposed $10 million diversion of funds is appropriate because the school facilities fund has increased by 18 percent — amounting to about $10 million more than initially projected in 2014 — while per-pupil funding for academics has stayed flat.
But critics argue that far more than $35 million a year — the amount that would be left for maintenance under Lewis' proposal — is needed to maintain the buildings FEMA funded.
"I need to remind you what the buildings looked like pre-Katrina," Lona Hankins, a parent and former district employee, said during a committee meeting Tuesday. "I chose a school for my child based on the condition of the bathrooms. I made that choice because the buildings sucked."
Ken Ducote, the former head of facilities for the district and director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, said that without renovations, school buildings typically have a "useful life" of 40 years.
Recalling what the city's schools looked like previously, Ducote said that "definitely" closer to $45 million a year is needed for the district to properly maintain all its schools.
"You'd need to reinvest an average of 2.5 percent a year," he said.
Ducote and others also said they had concerns about transparency, noting the original law demanded officials document how much money was going to specific plans or contracts.
"Just like you know who’s the contractor and who's the architect for a roof replacement, you want to know how money is spent and who it went to," Ducote said.