Saturday’s ballot in New Orleans includes the 10-year extension of a roughly $150 million dollar property tax to fund maintenance of New Orleans public schools that has drawn some unlikely opponents — members of the Orleans Parish School Board itself.
What is not immediately clear from the text of the proposition is that the Orleans Parish School District and Recovery School District will divvy up the anticipated $15 million each year proportional to student enrollment. The RSD educates about 70 percent of New Orleans public school students.
The 4.97 mill tax is currently being used to pay down bond debt issued as the result of a 1995 bond referendum and series of capital improvement projects. If the proposition is approved, the tax money would shift to a dedicated facilities fund as the bond debt is incrementally paid off. The tax lasts for ten years and bond debt will be fully paid off by 2021, leaving the remaining years dedicated solely to facilities fund and its management.
Though proponents and opponents of the tax generally agree the money is necessary to maintain the post-Katrina $1.8 billion federal investment in public school infrastructure, they don’t agree on the timing of it or how the money will be disbursed.
The flow of money is guided by Act 543, sponsored by New Orleans state Rep. Walt Leger and signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal this summer. Though clearly written with New Orleans in mind, the law is meant to apply statewide – so it doesn’t mention the Orleans Parish School Board by name.
It requires both the RSD and the home school district — the School Board in this case — to establish parallel facilities offices. Money will be allocated to each district based on enrollment. Funding will be further divvied up by enrollment per campus, with directed funds required to stay with the campus.
School Board members Cynthia Cade, Ira Thomas, and Leslie Ellison voted against placing the proposition on the ballot in the first place. Ellison says there’s no need for the vote to occur this year. Indeed the majority of the funding won’t become available for a few years, as the bonds are incrementally retired.
Proponents of the tax, such as School Board member Sarah Usdin, say it’s about maintaining the schools, not which agency manages the money.
A campaign supporting the tax was at the center of a legal battle in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s election. Attorney Willie Zanders sued the School Board alleging misuse of public funds and property on behalf of community group Justice and Beyond when signs went up on some city schools reading “Our Students Our Schools Vote Dec. 6” next to a group of smiling children holding their thumbs-up.
Schools agreed to remove the banners a few days in advance of the election.
Language on the ballot:
“Shall the Orleans Parish School board (the “School Board”) levy a tax of four and ninety-seven hundredths mills on the dollar of the assessed valuation of property within the City of New Orleans assessed for City Taxation, (an estimated $15,540,000 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year), for a period of ten (10) years, beginning in 2015, for the purpose of preservation, improvement and capital repairs of all existing public school facilities, to be levied and collected in the same manner as is set forth in Article VIII, Section 13(C)(Second) of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974; provided that said tax is to be levied each calendar year at a millage rate not in excess of the difference between 4.97 mills and any millage levied in such calendar year for any outstanding general obligation bonds of the School Board?”