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Audubon and two other schools mistakenly billed for water

As several schools around the city brace for new water bills to start trickling into their mailboxes this year, Audubon Charter School is anticipating another kind of exchange from the Sewerage and Water Board – a check for more than $9,000.

The board will be issuing a refund for water bills the school paid in 2007 and 2008, said Audubon’s finance manager, Lynette Brice.

“We weren’t supposed to pay water, but they were billing us anyway,” Brice said.

Under state law, New Orleans public schools are allowed four gallons of water per person per day for free. The Sewerage and Water Board is allowed to charge for any consumption above that.

That legislation went into effect in 1993, when the city’s schools were still a unified district. But after Hurricane Katrina, the Board stopped collecting revenue from any public school in the city.

The Sewerage and Water Board’s Deputy Special Counsel Brian A. Ferrara told The Lens in an email that he knows of three public schools that paid bills for water use from 2006 until the present. Lagniappe Academies and The NET Charter High School are the other two schools that also paid for some water during that time, according to Ferrara.

“In those cases a credit has been or will be issued for the amounts paid over the cap,” said.

Ferrara wouldn’t say how much Lagniappe Academies or The NET were charged, citing state attorney general’s opinions saying that a utility customer has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Officials at Audubon said they thought they were unfairly billed back in 2007 and 2008, since the board wasn’t charging for water use at every school in the city. But it took years before the Sewerage and Water Board finally agreed that there was a billing error, Brice said.

In July, Sewerage and Water Board officials announced they would begin collecting revenue for water consumed by all public schools in the city, in bills that could add up to tens of thousands of dollars throughout the year.

That’s when Brice remembered the bills she thought Audubon unfairly paid five and six years ago for the location in the old Carrollton Courthouse on 719 S. Carrollton Ave.

“Now they’re telling us, ‘Oh, schools have to pay water,’” Brice said during a recent school board meeting. “I said, ‘OK, well, where’s our refund from the water we paid for back then?’”

Brice said she sent documentation of the bills being paid, and that the school was expecting a check to come in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, she said that had the school not received promise of that refund, she would have been “worried” about the impact a potential water bill could have on Audubon’s budget.

But Robert Jackson, the director of community and intergovernmental relations for the Sewerage and Water Board, has said that many schools won’t see a charge at all.

“The goal is and has been to encourage and/or provide an incentive to the school systems to properly maintain and repair the school’s plumbing systems and curtail the wasting of water by schools,” Jackson told The Lens in July.

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