One of the signs that was in question hung near the busy intersection of South Carrollton Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, in front of what most recently was a campus of Audubon elementary Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

On Saturday, New Orleans voters will decide whether to invest millions of dollars into maintaining public school facilities through a property tax — but at key moments important players don’t seem to know exactly who’s in charge of the buildings.

And the item on the ballot doesn’t make clear that two different agencies, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state-run Recovery School District, will divvy up the money in proportion to students they oversee. And the law would force the two districts to set up parallel offices to oversee the repair money, which would make it twice as hard to track who’s spending what money and where.

The confusion of people even fairly familiar with the unique situation of New Orleans public schools further illustrates the complex system of dozens of independently run charter schools and the handful of traditional schools — and who has control of them.

This is important because whoever controls the buildings is responsible for ongoing maintenance and the condition of the facilities where students are educated. Few would dispute that students stand a better chance at a quality education when not learning under leaking roofs, moldy ceilings, peeling paint and in classrooms with unreliable heat and air conditioning. The city has a bad reputation for educating students in such decrepit facilities, but it’s often unclear who should be held accountable for making improvements and held liable when something goes wrong.

A court battle over a campaign for the ballot initiative illustrates the problem: A lawsuit filed in November alleges public money and property were improperly used when posting political signs on campuses about the tax. Though the signs were paid for by a private group, the plaintiffs questioned whether public employees installed them, whether schools possibly bought them and whether the signs implied a ‘yes’ vote. More importantly, they questioned whether the very visible school buildings were being used as ad hoc billboard space.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, banners reading “Our Students Our Schools Vote Dec. 6.” and depicting a group of children giving the thumbs-up sign went up on playground fences and schoolyards throughout the city.

Justice and Beyond, a community group that opposes the school maintenance tax because it says the tax will siphon money away from the locally elected school board, sued the School Board alleging misuse of public funds. Schools and public bodies can run educational campaigns on issues, such as the property tax. But they cannot urge people to vote a certain way on a particular proposition — and the signs appeared to do just that.

Eleven days before the election, Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting School Board employees from hanging any additional signs. But the judge was confused about just who was in charge of the buildings, and the murky issue of who to blame when something goes wrong with a New Orleans school building quickly became the matter at hand.

“Who has control over all that?” Chase asked as she tried to establish who was responsible for the signs.

The signs encouraging people to vote in the school election were hanging on both charter and traditional school buildings, and attorney Willie Zanders initially sued the Orleans Parish School Board, which owns almost every building in the city housing a public school, charter or traditional. But just because the School Board owns them, does not mean they control them.

The matter was delayed because the temporary restraining order only applied to the School Board employees, sending the plaintiff’s attorney scrambling to quickly sue dozens of independent charter boards, even though he wasn’t convinced it was necessary.

The order did not apply to Recovery School District charter school employees, and some RSD run charter schools sported the signs as well. Both districts have a dog in the hunt — if the tax passes, both will receive facility funding.

But even though the tax would provide maintenance funds to all schools, some unlikely opponents of the proposition have surfaced, including school board members, because they don’t want to the RSD to receive that funding.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.
This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

The RSD, once thought to be a temporary entity, will be further solidified by the tax’s approval because it will provide new multi-million dollar yearly revenue stream. Proponents see that as a good thing because each entity will have control and a closer sense of responsibility over the money needed to repair its schools. But opponents who would like to see a reunified school system some day under the local board – and the phasing out of the RSD – see this as deeper bureaucratic entrenchment.

When the Recovery School District takes over a failing school, responsibility and maintenance of that school’s campus goes with it. In the fall of 2005, the RSD took control of more than 100 schools deemed failing. With the start of this school year, the RSD became the first district in the country in which every school is a charter; there are 57 charters now under its general oversight in the city.

After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government provided $1.8 billion to rebuild New Orleans schools, but even that wasn’t enough to cover all the costs for a long-neglected system, let alone set any money aside for continuing maintenance and inevitable replacement costs or major problems. The ballot proposition would provide nearly $15 million a year to be set aside for that purpose, for 10 years.

If approved, the proposition on Saturday’s ballot would extend an existing property tax for bond debt and rededicate the money to school maintenance as the debt is gradually paid down over the next few years.

For now, the fight over the signs seems to have been partly resolved after a Monday meeting between the lawyers in the case. School Board attorney Bill Aaron said the district would remove the banners from its six traditionally run public schools. But Aaron did not speak for charter schools authorized by the School Board or for Recovery School District charters.

Zanders, the lawyer for the plaintiff, Justice and Beyond, still maintains that the School Board should hold its charters accountable for breaking the law. Although the case does not specifically address election law, political signage is prohibited within 600 feet of a polling place, which many schools are.

“I saw 14 charter schools violating state law and I still to this day maintain that the Orleans Parish School Board should be held accountable for those charter schools [that it authorized] that were violating the election law,” he said.

Zanders put out a news release Thursday saying that a subsequent Thursday court hearing was unnecessary because he was assured the signs had been taken down.

Zanders has been involved in civil-rights and election-related lawsuits over his decades of practice, but he said this one stood out.

“In all of my years in New Orleans…I had never seen signs on public schools that were promoting a yes vote, clearly promoting a yes vote,” he said.

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...