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Easton leader keen on legislation that would establish revolving fund for maintenance

The president of Warren Easton Charter School Foundation, the board that oversees the Mid-City charter school, supports a state House bill, HB 941, that would create a school facilities maintenance fund.

Sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, the program would set aside funds for future projects, addressing maintenance needs in a more business-like manner.

Rather than set aside funds for maintenance, the Orleans Parish School Board has been trying to come up with money as needed repairs become apparent, schools consultant Ken Ducote explained to Easton officials at their April board meeting.

Right now schools are being maintained with post-Katrina recovery funds meted out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. By 2017, as outlined in the system’s Facilities Master Plan, every functioning school house should be new or renovated thanks to the $1.8 billion FEMA allocation.

But eventually that money dries up, Ducote said, and unless House Bill 941 passes, there’s no plan in place for what happens after that.

“We got all this FEMA money coming in — that would be a one-time shot — then we’d revert back to the same old inadequate maintenance budget,” Ducote said.

If HB 941 becomes law, and voters agree to extend a soon-to-expire tax that currently pays for debt service on school construction bonds, money would flow into a revolving fund available for capital maintenance needs, such as roof repairs, new chillers and the like.

Right now, a portion of Orleans Parish sales and property tax is dedicated to paying off school construction bonds. Those bonds are set to expire in 2020, freeing up debt service funding that could go into the maintenance fund, Ducote said.

“It would not solve all of the problems, but it would solve a big hunk of the problems that would be there, and it would continue, and the money would continue to pile up,” Ducote added.

Older buildings, or those not renovated by more than 50 percent since Katrina, would be given priority access to the funding. That would be good for Warren Easton, foundation president David Garland said. The school is housed in a 100-year-old building and has required several costly repairs that might have been avoided with better maintenance.

“This plan is so much more proactive,” Garland said of the idea behind HB 941. He called it a “brilliant” concept.

Moreover, the new bill would allow schools to take fuller control of their maintenance projects, Garland added. Easton officials aren’t strangers to that responsibility. In February 2013, the board voted to allocate more than $300,000 in reserve funds to fix ongoing water damage from leaks into the school’s band room.

The repairs were made without any guarantee that the school would be reimbursed, as outlined in the district’s master plan. Easton officials took the risk because the Orleans Parish School Board was two years behind on other construction projects and the repairs could not wait.

If HB 941 becomes law, other schools could make decisions on major maintenance projects — but with confidence that reimbursement from the pooled funds was guaranteed.

Indeed, Easton’s band room repairs are being cited as exemplary of a school thinking like a business and getting better results than are available by waiting for OPSB, Ducote told board members.

“In this case it was seen as the more efficient way to get things done,” Ducote said. “What this is attempting to do is invest the money more wisely. It’s a very important concept.”

The allocated money would reflect enrollment size as well as need, Ducote added.

The only catch, Garland explained, is that voters in Orleans Parish would have to continue levying the property tax for the new program after the construction bonds are retired. The sales tax revenue stream continues without requiring a vote.

“The tricky thing is getting the people of new Orleans to understand how good of a system it is,” Garland said. “To not let these monies expire, but to continue to have a fund source.”

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