Orleans Parish School Board asking voters to approve rededication of existing tax for upkeep of new school buildings _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.

The Orleans Parish School Board will be asking local voters on Dec. 6 to approve a proposition allowing the board to use some of the tax dollars it already collects to pay for long-term upkeep of the city’s new school buildings.

None of this seems controversial, at first. In fact, the proposition would not even change anyone’s tax bills. An existing property tax of 4.97 mills — meaning an annual bill of about $62 for a property worth $200,000 with a homestead exemption — would simply be repurposed, used to pay for maintenance costs instead of paying off old bond debt.

But the details of how the money will be allocated have stirred up another pitched debate for a board that has seen plenty of them in the past couple of years. Three of seven board members refused to vote in favor of even putting the question on the ballot, and activists with the group Justice and Beyond have filed a lawsuit to try and stop schools from putting up signs about the vote on their campuses.

The main sticking point is whether some of the money from the tax should end up with the Recovery School District, the state agency that took over most of the city’s public schools after Hurricane Katrina. Thus, the tax vote has become another referendum on the state takeover and the independent charter schools that have spread under the state’s watch.

Most of the revenue would go into individual accounts attached to each of the city’s school buildings, many of which have been rebuilt or renovated since the storm. Schools would hold on to the money until they need to make big repairs like replacing a boiler or a roof.

But the School Board and the Recovery District would get a small cut of the money to hire extra staff. Those employees would help manage a central account that schools could draw on for emergency repairs, should their own funds not be enough. And they would provide oversight, making sure schools follow regulations on how they invest and spend the money that goes into their own accounts.

The plan’s backers see it as an innovative approach that fits neatly with New Orleans’ decentralized school system, one in which charter schools make their own decisions on curriculum, hiring and other policies.

Leslie Jacobs, a former School Board member and one of the Recovery District’s most prominent defenders, has been pushing the idea along with advocacy groups like Stand for Children, The New Orleans Business Council and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

The plan has run into flak among officials and activists who opposed the Recovery District to begin with or at least feel it should have relinquished schools to local control by now. Some also don’t like the idea that charter schools will have control over their own accounts, since they’re managed by private, appointed boards rather than an elected body.

Willie Zanders, the attorney who filed a lawsuit over the proposition on behalf of Justice and Beyond and other groups, summed up the opposition when he told board members in September, “It’s public money that’s going to private boards. That’s not right. To me, it sounds like malfeasance.”

All this complicates any predictions about whether the measure will pass muster with voters. Certainly there is dissatisfaction with the Recovery District in many parts of the city. Some voters are likely to vote against it simply because it is a tax that would otherwise be phased out — by 2021 — as the school board pays off its bond debt.

And voters lately have sent mixed signals on other tax votes. Back in March, they shot down a new property tax for the Audubon Nature Institute, which would have paid for zoo and aquarium upgrades, among other things. They also rejected a similar rededication of an existing tax proposed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman earlier this month.

On the other hand, voters this month also paved the way for a possible increase in property taxes to pay for fire and police protection in Orleans Parish. It cleared a statewide vote with support from New Orleans voters and could come up for a parish vote in the next year.