Update: The school board voted 5-1 to approve the financing deal. Further details are in the story and in the live blog below.
The Orleans Parish School Board has gathered for a special noon meeting to discuss financing for reconstruction of the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in the Treme neighborhood. I am live-blogging the event at the school board offices on General De Gaulle Drive.
The financing deal is for about $2 million in tax credit equity to cover some of the costs of the $25 million Phillis Wheatley building project, according to Annie Clark Cambria, director of strategic financing for the Recovery School District. The RSD and the school board have been working on Wheatley financing for months, school board officials said.
Success in using credits to finance Wheatley construction is seen as a first step in securing similar credits for other school rebuilding projects.
Both the school board and Recovery School District officials have struggled to finance construction costs for a majority of buildings in the city’s $2 billion school facilities master plan, the blueprint for the overhaul of infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
While the costs of rebuilding schools in the first phase of the plan were mainly covered by FEMA, financing for Phase 2 schools is expected to depend heavily on tax credits.
Due to changing market conditions, construction costs have risen in the four years since the plan was first drafted, and officials have had to rework estimates repeatedly.
OPSB president Ira Thomas has been hesitant to sign off on the deal and blocked it from being added to agenda for the school board meeting two days ago. He says he’s worried about the school board being on the hook for the rest of the financing for Wheatley, which is going to house an RSD school when finished.
After he blocked the deal from the agenda, three board members called for today’s special meeting. Consistent with school board policy, Thomas honored the request.
Although the school board owns the city’s school buildings, the RSD controls most of them due to Act 35, the law passed after Hurricane Katrina that authorized the state to take over failing Orleans Parish schools.
Update: After two hours of conversation and public comments, OPSB voted to approve the Wheatley financing deal. Nolan Marshall Jr., Seth Bloom, Leslie Ellison, Woody Koppel and Sarah Usdin voted yes. Thomas voted no, and Cynthia Cade was absent.
Marshall’s speech just before the vote (“I’m going to vote my conscience”) as well as Thomas’ assertion that other board members had pressured Marshall prior to the meeting, seems to indicate that Marshall’s vote was a key factor in pushing the project through.
During the meeting, Ellison and Thomas both expressed concerns that the Recovery School District had not contracted with more disadvantaged businesses in the Wheatley building construction. RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said that while less than 3 percent of construction on the project is now being done by those businesses, the project is at the beginning stages, and the district plans to increase that in the future. See the full conversation below.