By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas is talking up a plan to transfer control of Orleans Parish School Board facilities to a new authority that would build all the city’s public schools, whether operated by the school board, the state-run RSD or a charter board.
Speaking Tuesday on WBOK’s popular The Good Morning Show, Vallas told host Gerod Stevens that an autonomous construction authority would help ensure that all school operators have equal access to facilities while creating new opportunities for New Orleans companies, particularly those certified to participate in the city’s disadvantaged business programs.
The authority would be local, not state-run, allowing “more control over local hiring mandates” and other economic-development programs, Vallas told listeners to the talk radio show, which attracts a predominantly African-American audience.
This notion of creating a new authority to manage construction, and even perhaps lease buildings to school operators and maintain vacant facilities, is one that has surfaced in policy discussions throughout the five years since OPSB transferred more than a 100 low-performing schools to the RSD. The move created a logistically complex administrative environment in which the RSD manages schools it doesn’t own and the OPSB owns schools it doesn’t run. Currently the RSD oversees 68 schools, 46 of which are charters. OPSB oversees 20 schools, 16 of which are charters. Dozens more OBSB campuses sit vacant across the city in varying states of disrepair attributed in part to disagreements between the RSD and OPSB over which agency is responsible for maintenance.
Most vexing to charter school operators is their inability to secure leases longer than a couple of years because officials don’t know how long the facilities will remain under state control. School leaders claim this destabilizes staff and students by requiring them to jump from campus to campus. Further, it discourages charters from investing in facilities, critics say, extending the use of trailers and other temporary accommodations five years after Hurricane Katrina.
“One of the challenges of the divided control is we can’t grant long-term leases to schools, so you hamper ability to self-finance repair,” said Kathleen Padian, founder of the New Orleans School Facility Project and president of the board of Langston Hughes Academy. Padian added that the new authority is not the only possible solution; transferring facility control to the OPSB could also solve the problem. “I am all for a school facility entity, whatever that entity is, that would ensure equitable access and cost to all schools, public, charter or no-charter,” she said.
Padian declined to comment on the viability of creating a new authority until she learns more about how it would work.
When asked for details about the proposed entity, RSD spokesman Ken Jones wrote in an e-mail that the separate facility authority would help alleviate some of the difficulties of building a decentralized system in which most schools are independently operated by charters.
“The whole idea is to create an authority that will provide school construction, that will build schools — both charters and non-charters — in a kind of agnostic way,” Jones wrote. Whether or not leasing or maintenance issues would be resolved by the new authority depends on the broadness of its mandate. If, for instance the authority held sway over only construction matters with complete facilities staying under OPSB management, the leasing issue raised by Padian would not necessarily be solved.
Vallas plans to leave New Orleans in August, just as work on the city’s $1.8 billion school construction plan ramps up. The new authority could potentially take over much of the contracting and management responsibility that now falls to the RSD, even for schools on campuses owned by the Orleans Parish School Board. Once a charter is assigned a facility by the RSD, the independent school operator is responsible for handling maintenance and facility issues. The RSD does not charge rent on behalf of the OPSB, but each charter contributes about $340 per student annually towards the School Board’s bond debt. Because of a quirk in state law, the OPSB’s charter schools do not contribute to the bond debt.
It’s unclear exactly who would serve on the new authority or how it would be funded. In earlier discussions, policymakers had talked about a board-run entity with representatives from the RSD, OPSB, the city and other local stakeholders, including universities and community organizations. The authority could be funded with proceeds from the stream of local tax proceeds and federal funds now filtered on a per-student basis to various school facility managers, Jones wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.
In essence, this means the new authority would compete with the School Board for revenue sources and in turn, dilute the board’s finances and power. Not surprisingly, the OPSB opposes the creation of the new authority. “There already is tremendous competition in the Parish among taxing bodies for their share of the tax base,” OBSB Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith wrote in an email. Smith also raised concerns that the state funding formula for education does not take into account such a construction entity and thus creating one could “adversely impact” the amount of state funding Orleans Parish schools receive.
The RSD did not respond to questions about these concerns. It is unlikely, however, that such an authority could be created without the support of the OPSB because establishing new taxing bodies requires an act of the state legislature and the school board maintains a political base within the New Orleans delegation to Baton Rouge, albeit one that has lost power in recent years.
Autonomous authorities like the one proposed in New Orleans already control school construction in other localities, including New York City. The New York state legislature created the city’s school authority board to build facilities in the 1990s as a way of streamlining and depoliticizing property management issues.