Watering the football field at the Lusher charter could put the school above the allotment of free water it gets from the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board
Watering the football field at Lusher’s high school could put the charter above the allotment of free water it gets from the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Just one week before the start of a new fiscal year, charter school operators received an email from the Recovery School District alerting them to a potential new charge that most schools have not accounted for in their budgets — a sewer and water bill.

Although they have not been charging schools for water since Hurricane Katrina, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans will begin collecting revenue for water consumed by all public schools in the city, a board spokesperson confirmed to The Lens.

Under state law, New Orleans public schools are allowed four gallons of water per person per day for free. It is unclear as of now how many schools will go over their allotment next year, as calculations are based on Oct. 1 student counts and staffing numbers. Also, the data appears to be incomplete — more than 60 meters associated with schools had readings indicating that zero water was used during the 2012-13 school year, according to the Sewerage and Water Board.

Those schools that go over their allotments will have to pay for the additional water they use. Some schools could be paying tens of thousands of dollars in sewerage and water expenses next year.

Based on state enrollment data and the Sewerage and Water Board’s water consumption data, the majority of schools use less than 3 million gallons of water per year. But it appears the allotment will be much lower than that for many schools.

The allotment for a school like John McDonogh High School, with a projected student count of 370 and 38 staff members, would be nearly 596,000 gallons of water a year. That would be the equivalent of about $5,000 of free water and sewer, based on the spreadsheet provided to schools.

If a school were to use about 3 million gallons more than its allotment, as was the case last year with Lusher Charter School’s middle and high schools, they would pay about $23,000 in sewer and water charges, according to a 2013 read rate on the spreadsheet.

Joe Neary, chief operating officer of FirstLine Schools, said he expects three of the network’s five schools to go over their allotment and owe a balance. He said using the calculator provided to the schools he anticipates Arthur Ashe Charter School, S. J. Green Charter School and Langston Hughes Academy to have bills of about $15,000 annually.

Langston Hughes Academy falls at the top of the group of schools using less than 3 million gallons. The school used about 2.8 million gallons total last year.

Some FirstLine schools have gardens, which add to their water consumption, but Neary said that won’t stop the network from running the program and watering the gardens.

“At this point, no, $15,000 a year is not enough for us to reconsider that type of programming,” said Neary.

The spreadsheet was attached to an email signed by RSD Operations Chief of Staff Tiffany Delcour. Data collected from the 2012-2013 school year shows that six school meters registered between 3 and 5 million gallons; six meters measured more water than that.

The spreadsheet shows that 19 water meters measured between 1 and 3 million gallons last year.

According to the data, 60 meters indicated use between 100,000 gallons and 1 million gallons, and 35 meters measured between 100,000 and 100 gallons. According to the spreadsheet, several buildings that were closed didn’t use any water, but some open schools were also listed as having consumed zero gallons.

This chart is based on meter readings provided by the Sewerage and Water Board. Some schools have multiple meters. The numbers also include some schools that are closing or moving locations.

The Sewerage and Water Board will start pursuing the charges in the next fiscal year, calculating them according to the schools’ Oct. 1 population count, Delcour wrote in the email to charter operators.

Although this is a new task for the charter operators, this is not a new charge in the city. The only difference is, now the schools’ charter operators will be charged directly for any usage that exceeds the allotted amount.

The Sewerage and Water Board is now undertaking that task for the more than 40 charter school operators in the city, asking each school to register for the 2013-14 school year for “sewerage and water services.”

“Now you’ve got all these charter schools,” said Ken Ducote, a facilities consultant who used to be the Director of Facility Planning and Development for New Orleans Public Schools. “So the charter schools have to set up accounts.”

In an email to the The Lens, Robert Jackson, the Sewerage and Water Board’s director of community and intergovernmental relations, said the schools’ meters were field tested and the usage data was transmitted to the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board.

For now, Jackson added, the Sewerage and Water Board will continue to send out “memo” bills from July 2013 through December 2013. Payment for that period won’t be required until January 2014, he said.

Although some of the schools will see a charge, it appears that many won’t. According to Jackson, the purpose of sending the bills to charter operators wasn’t necessarily to make money.

“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 wrote in an email to The Lens.

The schools will be allotted four gallons per person per day, including students and staff, for free, as written in Louisiana law. That amount is “generous,” Jackson said.

State law stipulates the allotment is calculated based on four gallons per person for 365 days, not solely the days students and staff are in school. The minimum number of instructional days required by the state is 177, though some schools have more than that.

“The gallons per person per school formula was developed based on plumbing standards taking into account what amount of water could be reasonably used by students, faculty and staff that could not be considered waste due to faulty plumbing or deferred maintenance,” Jackson said.

He added that some schools will be using much less than the allotted amount.

“Other schools go over the amount for a number of reasons that might include deferred maintenance, broken internal lines and other increased non-personal uses of water.”

But not all school leaders are thrilled to be getting the bill. At four gallons per person per day, a child who flushed a toilet three times in one day would go over the allotted amount of water consumption per student, given that the toilet had a standard 1.6-gallon tank.

“Don’t we get free water? It’s ending even for public schools? Wow,” said Michael Richard, the founder of the recently shuttered school, Pride College Prep.

Other schools have special circumstances they’re concerned about — such as a football field, a kitchen or a garden.

While it’s not immediately clear how the water will be charged in those instances, Jackson said the RSD could obtain separate meters “at a cost” for those circumstances. That way, water that is used exclusively for watering a football field or a school garden would be excluded from the additional sewer charge.

The formula is calculated the same way regardless of whether the school has football fields or gardens to water, or if one school may be responsible for cooking meals served at other schools. By law, the board is not allowed to make exceptions, Jackson added.

“It’s going to cost us money, particularly with the football field,” said Kathy Riedlinger, Lusher Charter School’s chief executive officer.

The cost of maintaining the school’s football field would likely tip Lusher over the allotment. In 2012, Riedlinger said the Freret Street campus, which houses the middle and high school, had a population of about 1,100 people. Under current legislation that would equal a water allotment of 1.6 million gallons.

The Freret campus used nearly 4.5 million gallons last year. Under the formula, that would leave Lusher footing the bill for nearly 2.9 million gallons of water.

According to calculations done by The Lens using the sewerage and water bill estimator on the spreadsheet, Lusher’s Freret campus would pay about $23,000 in sewerage and water charges next year. The calculations are based on a student count of about 1,000 and about 100 staff.

“That’s going to be a change for us and we’re kind of waiting to see exactly what the bottom line is going to be,” Riedlinger added.

Nor will a school be given an exception for faulty pipes.

“They should be repaired as soon as possible by the owner of the property,” Jackson said.

Many charter schools lease space from the RSD, which controls most OPSB buildings. Delcour said maintenance issues, such as repairing a leaky toilet, would fall on the charter operator, while larger capital improvement issues would likely be taken on by the RSD. She said all repairs are considered on an individual basis.

To better prepare each school for potential charges, the Sewerage and Water Board has re-calibrated all water meters and provided each school with data on their use, the email from Delcour said.

The email urged schools to look over data to calculate what their bills may look like in the near future.

ARISE Academy is moving into the Frederick Douglass High School building, which had the highest water consumption of any of the schools. Based solely on the student count of 387 last year, the charter school would receive only about 565,000 gallons for free. With the school’s staff population taken into account, the allotment would be slightly more, but still would hardly make a dent in the 40.3 million gallons measured at the site last year.

If that were the case again, and Arise had the same enrollment, the school would get a bill of at least $309,000 for the year according to Lens calculations using RSD enrollment and Sewerage and Water Board data.

KIPP housed about 500 students in the Douglass building last year, according to Jonathan Bertsch, KIPP’s director of advocacy. He said water use appeared normal and school officials never noticed any out of the ordinary leaking or other plumbing issues.

“We weren’t filling up a swimming pool every day,” Bertsch said. “Nothing unusual, just normal school operations.”

The reason for the high water use at the Douglass building isn’t quite clear yet, Delcour said, though she noted contractors believe there were two or three sources of leaks. She said the RSD has sent mechanical engineers to schools with exceptionally high water usage.

“We’ve already sent groups out to assess the top outliers,” Delcour said.

However, she added, the engineers haven’t determined the exact problem yet.

Legislation passed in 1992 allotted New Orleans public schools “four gallons per day, per three hundred sixty-five days a year” for the general population assigned to the building, in a school that would include students and staff. The legislation went into effect in 1993, when the city’s schools were a unified district.

At that time, any charges the schools may have incurred were sent to the Orleans Parish School Board, according to OPSB interim Superintendent Stan Smith.

The law also applies to non-school facilities, such as office buildings used by those in the city’s education system.

In late 2006, with more charter schools in the mix, the state attorney general issued two opinions on the matter. The first was in response to the Sewerage and Water Board and the second to the state superintendent of education at the time, Cecil Picard.

Both opinions come to the conclusion that both OPSB- and RSD-authorized charter schools are entitled to free water under the four gallon per person per day cap. “It is the opinion of this office that charter schools created pursuant to La. R.S. 17:3971, et seq. are entitled to free water and sewer services, subject to the statutory cap of four gallons per day per student or employee.”

Although the law’s been on the books, some school leaders and public officials seemed to be taken completely by surprise upon hearing the news.

“I heard it was coming, I didn’t know it was happening so soon,” said Simone Green, the director of finances and operations for the school formerly known as Pride College Prep.

City Councilmember Stacy Head said that the Recovery School District’s email, which was forwarded to her by The Lens, was the first she had heard of the plan.

Head has frequently advocated for a more cost-efficient Sewerage and Water Board in the city, but doesn’t think the plan is appropriate for either the city’s schools or the Board.

The biggest problem, she added, is that the bill depends on a student count from each school — a number that fluctuates as the year progresses, making it difficult for the schools to get an accurate bill every month.

“It’s a very unworkable model because one, the school population fluctuates, and two, it doesn’t give a lot to the Sewerage and Water Board,” Head said.

According to independent research she has done on other systems in the state and in the Gulf Coast region, Head thinks that a better plan would be to charge the schools a certain percentage of what the normal commercial rate would be — such as 25 percent.

“We should be looking at what other government entities that run sewerage and water systems and see what they do,” she said. “New Orleans is an outlier — it provides more free water than any other place we could find.”

Head said monitoring the schools’ water consumption, however, is a step in the right direction.

“We are insuring that every school is metered,” she said. “For a while, we weren’t even metering schools, and that contributes to waste and overconsumption.”

“I’m supportive of the concept of getting the accounting straight,” Head added. “I’m supportive of charging the schools something, but what that something would be is a policy debate that we need to have. And we haven’t had it.”

Head said that she plans to bring this issue up at the Board level and at the City Council level to find what might be a better model. First, she added, she plans to ask for a detailed presentation from officials at the Sewerage and Water Board to learn more about their plans.