Voters approve tax extension to maintain New Orleans schools

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New Orleans voters on Saturday approved a $150 million dollar property tax over 10 years to fund maintenance of New Orleans public schools.

The vote means that a property tax set to expire in 2021 will remain in place through 2025. The tax was instituted to repay bonds for school construction and improvements. Now, as those bonds are paid off, the money will shift to a dedicated facilities fund.

The owner of a $200,000 home pays about $62 in that tax.

Though proponents and opponents of the tax generally agreed that the money is necessary to maintain the $1.8 billion federal investment in public school buildings after Hurricane Katrina, they did not agree on the timing of it or how the money will be disbursed.

What was not immediately clear from the text of the proposition, and a chief complaint of opponents, is how the money will be split between the Orleans Parish School District and the Recovery School District.

The two will divvy up the anticipated $15 million each year according to their enrollment. The RSD educates about 70 percent of New Orleans public school students.

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 parish 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 funds required to stay with the campus.

The tax drew some unlikely opponents — members of the Orleans Parish School Board itself.

School Board members Cynthia Cade, Ira Thomas, and Leslie Ellison voted against placing the proposition on the ballot in the first place. Ellison said there was no need for the vote to occur this year. Indeed most of the money won’t become available for a few years.

Proponents of the tax, such as School Board member Sarah Usdin, said 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 on behalf of the community group Justice and Beyond, alleging misuse of public funds and property.

The lawsuit was prompted by signs hanging on some city schools that read “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 before the election.

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