Tax to help schools runs into static because RSD would get some money

Ongoing renovations and construction, such as this new gym at McMain Secondary High School will eventually need to be maintained. A tax on the Dec. 6 ballot would provide money for such future capital needs.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Ongoing renovations and construction, such as this new gym at McMain Secondary High School will eventually need to be maintained. A tax on the Dec. 6 ballot would provide money for such future capital needs.

Next month, New Orleans voters will decide whether to extend an expiring property tax that finances repairs to public school buildings, but the measure is facing resistance from unlikely people: some members of the Orleans Parish School Board.

Indeed, three out of the seven members voted against even sending the question to voters. That’s because the measure takes millions of dollars now controlled by the School Board and puts them in the hands of the Recovery School District, even though the state-run district isn’t mentioned anywhere in the ballot proposition.

The narrow vote shows just how much some board members are concerned about the expansion of control and power at the RSD. This financial struggle is playing out at a time when the board thought improving schools would be returning from the RSD, which was originally created to temporarily operate and improve failing schools.

Instead, improved schools that could have moved back to local control have not done so, and the RSD is settling in as a long-term governance structure parallel to the elected School Board.

And while each entity eyes the other with some disdain, their futures for now are intertwined because they’re required to cooperate on such things as building repairs. Some see this tax as having a secondary effect of financially disentangling the two districts.

Though the existence of the School Board is enshrined in the state constitution, the number of students it oversees and how much power it continues to wield is another matter.

Vote would extend tax for new purpose

At issue is a 5-mill tax that would bring in about $15 million annually. Voters in 1995 approved the new tax to finance a $175 million renovation program for the schools. It’s set to expire in 2021, after the loans that paid for the work are paid off.

The proposition before voters on Dec. 6 is whether to keep the tax and dedicate the money as a facilities safety net the schools have never had. The tax would be for 10 years.

Few dispute that the city’s schools need further repair money, even after a post-Katrina federal infusion of $1.8 billion in rebuilding money. While eye-popping, that figure simply wasn’t enough to help every school. Further, this dedicated money would ensure that recently opened schools will have repair money in coming years, as inevitable problems present themselves.

The argument, though, is over who should hold that money and make the decisions.

Paying for school repairs was much simpler 20 years ago, when there was a single entity controlling, assigning, building and repairing all the public schools in the city.

Now, the School Board owns all the buildings, but the RSD decides who occupies most of them. The RSD and the board jointly planned how to spend federal renovation money. And upkeep is generally the responsibility of the independent charter operator that occupies a building.

In fact, it’s so complicated that the districts themselves don’t quite seem to know yet exactly how the money would be managed.

The RSD became an all-charter district this year, providing general oversight to 57 schools run by 24 charter organizations. The RSD schools enroll about 30,000 students. The Orleans Parish School Board oversees 14 charter schools and operates six direct-run, or traditionally run, schools. The School Board campuses have about 12,000 students.

This tax can provide facilities money to the handful of charters schools in New Orleans that were chartered directly by the state school board — but only if they are located on School Board owned property. For instance, International High School’s campus is owned by the School Board and would be eligible for those funds. However it appears the French Immersion school Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle-Orleans, which rents its space from a church, would not receive facility funding.

Dissention on the School Board

School Board member Leslie Ellison voted against the resolution to put the tax before voters, saying in a recent interview that the proposition is misleading.

“On the ballot in December, it’s going to show millage for Orleans Parish School Board,” Ellison said. “It’s not going to say anything about RSD.”

Board members Cynthia Cade and Ira Thomas also voted no, resulting in a 4-3 approval vote. The resolution was offered by board member Woody Koppel and seconded by member Sarah Usdin. Members Nolan Marshall Jr. and Seth Bloom also voted for the measure.

Asked if the proposition was deceptive, Ellison said “Oh definitely. It’s misleading. It’s deceitful. Perhaps that may not have been the intent but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”

The School Board’s interim superintendent, Stan Smith, said the wording was “initially crafted” by the board’s bond attorneys at Foley & Judell. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office and the state Bond Commission then approved.

Asked whether a board member could have offered a change to the wording, Smith said yes, but the new language would have to go back through the approval process.

Ellison said she is not against establishing a facilities fund.

“I support redirecting the funds [from the old repair program to a new one], however, not to an entity that has no accountability to the public at all,” Ellison said.

She’s referring to the fact that the RSD does not answer to locally elected officials.

Ellison said she would have preferred waiting a year. In that time, she would have pushed for state legislation to keep the facility money under the School Board’s control. Ellison said the administration typically alerts the School Board to bills that would affect the district, but she does not recall being made aware of the bill that would become Act 543.

Ellison said she thinks a facilities office in the RSD is an unnecessary duplication of services.

“Deplorable conditions”

Her colleagues on the board and others who support the tax say the discussion shouldn’t be about political control, but about the conditions of the schools.

The millage that is winding down was passed in the 1995 when schools were in rough shape, said Marshall, the board’s president.

“I’ve lived and worked in the schools during the period in which we had no money to maintain the buildings,” Marshall said. “It was deplorable conditions, and I don’t ever want to see us go back to that.”

And a solution such as Ellison’s doesn’t make much sense, he said. With the Recovery district holding its charters accountable, it would only complicate things to have Orleans Parish hold the charter accountable for the state of the building, he said.

As to whether the School Board should oversee the capital work on the buildings it owns, Marshall said that’s a question for the governor and the legislature.

“We didn’t create the RSD, and we’re not going to abolish the RSD,” he said.

He says it makes sense for each district to monitor its own charters. And the buildings need to be taken care of.

“I’m not going to deprive the schools of the maintenance money they need because I don’t like how the state has given us the RSD to control some of our schools,” he said.

Board member Usdin also voted in favor of the resolution.

“I believe that it’s really good for all of our schools,” she said. “It’s really not about governance or type of school for me.”

Longtime facilities manager Ken Ducote agrees. Ducote works as a consultant for the Orleans Parish School Board and a collective of locally authorized charters. For many years before Katrina, he was the top facilities person within the New Orleans school system.

The money is needed, he says, whether or not everyone agrees on how it will be managed, or by whom.

“We’ve already been going nine years and haven’t solved all these governance questions,” Ducote said.

Regardless of who’s controlling the buildings, they need to be preserved he said. And while some people dislike the Recovery School District’s presence, Ducote says the buildings — and, consequently, children’s education — shouldn’t suffer.

“A lot of those negative feelings are justified but they are misplaced when they are applied to preserving the buildings,” he said.

Smith supports the tax because there isn’t now a dedicated source of capital projects, such as roof replacements or other large-scale repairs.

“It’s important that we have a source of funds to maintain them in a condition that keeps them safe and secure for students,” Smith said.

“It doesn’t represent a tax increase to the taxpayers,” he said. “It’s just a repurposing of funds to another use.”

Recovery School District officials support the proposition. Though the local School Board owns the facilities, when a failing school was turned over to the Recovery district, the responsibility of maintaining the building went with it.

RSD facilities chief Tiffany Declour said this year’s budget for capital work was $2.8 million for 64 facilities, which she says is not enough.

Approval or not, change is coming

Even if the proposition doesn’t pass, money will change hands and new offices will be set up as soon as more debt is paid down. That’s because the law requires the School Board to also divvy up the part of its general sales-tax revenue it spent on paying down debt, based on its spending as of July 1. That was budgeted at $2.8 million.

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.

The law requires the School Board to transfer the tax revenues to the RSD on a per-pupil basis.

Of the 42,000 public school students in the two New Orleans districts, about 70 percent attend RSD charter schools. So eventually, the RSD would get 70 percent of the tax money, if the proportion stays the same.

The initial money is modest, and sets up a new bureaucracy.

Under the law, the School Board will transfer a small amount — $15 per student — to the RSD, and set aside the same amount in a new account in its own coffers. The law requires both the RSD and the School Board to use that money to set up a bureaucracy to administer the facility funds. Those parallel offices would monitor their respective facilities, manage leases, handle emergency repairs and administer a revolving loan fund.

If passed, it the 5-mill property assessment would be an extension of the tax first approved in 1995 to pay off bonds through 2021. That means that a portion of the money must go to that debt-reduction purpose first, with the remainder going to the two new facilities-oversight offices.

The bonds for the earlier repairs were sold over five years, which is not unusual for such a large sum. That means some will be paid off sooner – as early as next year – and the rest will be settled over the course of the next several years.

If voters don’t approve the Dec. 6 measure, the property tax dedicated to paying off these debts will shrink as the bonds are paid off. If approved, the amount going to the new facilities funds will increase with each passing year before taking in all of the money raised after 2021.

The two facility-fund offices each would establish a revolving-loan fund for campuses. Should a school need to replace its roof, but not have the money on hand, it could borrow the money interest-free from its respective district’s fund. Then the school would pay it back in the following years with its yearly facility fund allotment.

The districts also will offer to manage facilities work for a fee. That is a service a charter school could elect to use in lieu of another contractor or in-house management.

The law says the money has to be used on bricks-and-mortar project and can’t be redirected to pay for such things as operating expenses or insurance.

Asked how a new facility office would work if the millage were to pass, Declour said that is still in the works.

The district has a priority before working out those details, said RSD Deputy Chief of Staff Laura Hawkins.

“I think we’re less concerned with how the money flows and getting the millage passed at this time,” she said.

Proposition text as it will appear 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?”



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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • nickelndime

    No! No! No! That’s my vote. Idiot legislators try to amend the state constitution all the time, and even though it applies to all of the parishes, Orleans Parish is always the one parish that gets shafted. Ken doesn’t know who will manage the money and he doesn’t give a damn as long as he gets his share, and he has been doing quite well since the hurricane. The man lives for mold. He loves it. He declares when it exists (for a fee) and he declares when it disappears and is no longer a risk. Oh, that is too much! I have started laughing and my ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) has fallen out of the chair. Ok! Ok! We are sending some people on a tour. And this will take care of a lot of problems. It is a good will tour and the party will spread good will to other states and they are going to spread it real thick, like fertilizer. Here’s the good will tour party: Stan the man Smith, Ken Ducote, Seth Bloom, Nolan Marshall, II, Sarah Usdin, Woody Koppel, and if Ed Morris doesn’t get on his Ps and Qs, he is going to join the party. LMAspO!

  • nickelndime

    One more thing – I am voting “NO” three – yes, that’s right, 3 times. I have three pseudonyms and I am going to make my votes COUNT! And yes, we can rid this state of the RSD. It will be hard at first, but the village idiots in Baton Rouge can be made to understand that we don’t want the RSD and we sure as hell don’t need it controlling leases. I say we make examples out of a couple of them. We drop a couple of them “lawmakers” (Walt is a good start) off in the 7th Ward in New Orleans and tell them to “run like hell” and see if they can make it past the cemetery. We do that a couple of times, and they ain’t gonna be shafting New Orleans no more. BOOYAH!

  • nickelndime

    Is Nolan Marshall, II, really an OPSB member?

  • 7th Warder

    As a citizen who grew up and lives the 7th ward, you offend me and my neighbors… You are a loud gong and clashing symbol… Your words are full of half truths and are written as though an unstated motive was the source of the outburst. I will state unequivocally, that Walt Leger especially, and even other folks you named with whom I might disagree would not only be safe on my block, but all throughout where dem Hardheads roam.
    Whoever you are, we’re not savages in the 7th ward… We can disagree on civic issues without resorting to violence or threats of violence.

  • nickelndime

    Hey 7th Warder – see if you can “make it” from the park past the cemetery. It gets dark early now, so you might want to try this during the daytime. I live in a couple of wards, including the 7th. In fact, I move from ward to ward regularly. The 7th has its own unique flavor – some things you may not be exposed to in the other wards or in the same degree – drug deals, blight, trash in the street and on sidewalks, crime – including seeing people shot down in the street, police chasing assailants on foot… Fess up, you know you have seen this! I might be called somewhat of a “transient resident.” I am your neighbor. We even look alike, but that’s where it ends. And as far as your commenting, good for you. At least you have done something – today! What about tomorrow?

  • nickelndime

    Yo, 7th Warder – check out THE LENS. I am toying with you – and I loves to press buttons. And it looks like you gots a lot of them.

  • 7th Warder

    Sounds to me like a lot of cover for being a loose-lipped, insensative critic… Feel free to be Judge and Jury w/respect these issues and public servants, as most transient “neighbors” of mine are… But your fooling yourself if you think ima let “our” neighborhood be disrepected as your executioner… The only button I have is when self-righteous critics, overreach in their critique. It’s inflammatory and dismissive and it triggers the olfactory senses to conjure the privilege associated with the Garden District and not my beloved 7th ward. Feel free to counter as you trolls typically do… It will only confirm my suspicions.

  • nickelndime

    Yo, 7th Warder – What got your blood racing – the RUNNING or the POSTING? Stop – you are making me laugh – and I ain’t got time – cuz it makes my ASP start laughing too (that’s my pet snake ASP). Then we fall off da chair…and then we start rolling on the floor. Too late – you gots my ASP started. As Al Pacino say in “The Devil’s Advocate,” “Yup, vanity is definitely my favorite sin.” I think self-serving righteousness is second. What say you? LMAspO!

  • nickelndime

    Yo, 7th Warder. You’ve got mail and it ain’t from the shop around the corner, if you gets my referring to an old and a new movie! Waits for the whistle.

  • nickelndime

    Yo 7th Warder – There may be Common Ground (no, not the Westbank nonprofit in the news for misappropriation of funds) for us yet! How about I let Walt Leger out of da limousine in da Garden District and tole him to “run like hell” for the park? Then we see if he makes it. It’s getting pretty bad around there too. Then, if Walt survives dat run, den we put him in da park in da 7th. He will get the idea and so will the others who have been “doing their business” all over New Orleans – not just in da 7th Ward.

  • nickelndime

    Yo, 7th Warder (Nov. 14): Were you there?
    Youth football coach, player shot at St. Roch Park, NOPD says..The scene of a double shooting Friday evening…in the 1800 block of St. Roch Avenue. (Photo by Jonathan Bullington, | The Times-Picayune)
    By Jonathan Bullington, | The Times-Picayune
    Hold up! Hold up! Now, I know I said that we should put Walt Leger in the 7th Ward at the park and cemetery and tell him to “run like hell,” but this is cutting it too close, when at least one resident (7th Warder) has taken offense at statements by others that the 7th Ward is not safe! Did Walt make it? Maybe we should have told Walt to “run like the wind!”

  • will_k2

    Ira Thomas only wants the schools to get repairs if he controls the money, gee what a surprise that is. Every single move he has made since being elected absolutely REEKS of corruption.

  • disqus_pn1er9XdzT

    She’s not only inflammatory and dismissive, she’s delusional. And she must be unemployed because she has a lot of time on her hands. While the rest of us are working to make things better in the city, she’s sitting on the internet creating her own reality, having a conversation with herself. Just look at how she jumped when you responded to her– she’s delighted that someone is giving her attention. It’s too bad– she has so much passion, it’s just trivial and mean. She’s against everyone and everything, has created some kind of fantasy that every educator and administrator is on the take, and is delighted to use stereotypes and ignorance to piss people off. It’s so sad because it’s just not what New Orleans is about, and I’m embarrassed for her.

  • nickelndime

    Oh! Oh! – somebody’s gonna be unemployed (soon) if she don’t get back to work instead of playing on the internet on company time. Now, giddy up! Yahoo! Ride ’em cowboy – cowgirl – whatever!

  • jazz_nola

    The proposition to ACT 35 that will be on the December ballot makes sense on face value, in that it provides a system for dedicated funds to keep our public schools maintained.

    However the devil is in the details of this proposition which raises serious concerns. First and foremost the dedicated funds are given to each school by enrollment, with that school having the most students would get the most money. Capital improvement in schools are done by need by every school district in the country thus insuring that all the building needs will be addressed. In this proposition the process is flawed in that as written we will continue to have numerous buildings that will remain deplorable because they will never get enough funds to address their needs because they may only have 250 students. Additionally the proposition states that the Recovery School District (RSD) will oversee the capital improvements at its charter schools. The RSD historically provides little if oversight to its charter schools and in fact have been cited in numerous Legislative Audit reports for not following state and federal policy as well has fiscal mismanagement. Additionally this proposition allows charter school board to conduct a “public bid” process in soliciting contractors for work at their schools. Once again most of the charter boards in New Orleans are self appointed, non-transparent and operate like a private entity. This is huge red flag given the problems we have in this city with the public bid process, having a self appointed board (who is legally a contractor) conduct a public bid process is unethical and sure disaster. This proposition also allows for these non-elected boards to received tax dollars in an account in their name, they are also allowed to make a revolving loan from RSD or the Orleans Parish School Board. While there are other concerns with this proposition these two alone are enough to vote NO and tell Rep Leger to come back with a bill that will work and meets the usual standards for public bid process.

  • nickelndime

    Excellent explanation, jazz_nola, of why New Orleans voters should vote NO to the proposition to Act 35. Still, I would like to put Walt in the 7th Ward, wind him up and let him go, but you seem to believe that Walt can be worked (with). But, if it turns out that Walt cannot do the job and doesn’t get the message, let me know and I will turn the damn limousine around and see if I can pick up Dobard, White, Peterson, and 8 BESE members. Party! Party!