Lens survey finds nearly half of school-zone flashers broken in New Orleans

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Michele Benson Huck was driving down Broad Place near St. Rita Catholic School. The school-zone flasher was malfunctioning — again — but she slowed down anyway.

The driver behind her responded by honking and trying to pass. Drivers routinely speed through during school hours, Huck said. “I just think it’s a matter of time before someone is critically injured or killed because people are in just such a rush,” she said.

Like the one on Broad Place, many of the school-zone flashers in the city don’t work properly.

They’re supposed to flash on school days from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2:45 p.m to 4:45 p.m. City code requires drivers to slow to 20 mph during those times, even if the flashers aren’t working.

The Lens surveyed all the flashers on the city’s official list on Jan. 7 and 8. Six out of 10 — 87 out of 147 in active school zones — were malfunctioning.

The city, which is responsible for maintaining the lights, blamed the solar panels atop the light poles when we shared our findings in mid-January. But according to the manufacturer, the problem may be more elementary: dead batteries and improper installation.

Some of the broken flashers we observed in early January were on the city’s busiest streets. On weekday mornings this school year, cars have regularly zipped by Eleanor McMain Secondary School and Ursuline Academy on South Claiborne Avenue as the lights failed to activate.

The flashers in both directions weren’t working when The Lens surveyed them on Jan. 7. Later in the month, they were.

But on Saturday, the westbound flashers were on at 12:30 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. Drivers disregarded them.

Steve Myers / The Lens

This flasher on South Claiborne Avenue wasn’t working when we first checked, but it was the second time. However, over the weekend it was flashing when school wasn’t in session — including 10 p.m. Saturday.

A couple of weeks after we notified the city of our findings, we checked the flashers again. This time, more of them were working. About 45 percent of the lights we checked were broken (57 out of 129), down from 60 percent.

Landrieu spokesman Brad Howard said the city had fixed 20 to 30 flashers in the last month by replacing bulbs, reprogramming the lights and fixing circuitry.

“The City routinely assesses school zone beacon flashers and makes repairs,” he said by email. “We also typically see an uptick of malfunction reports from residents – and subsequent repairs by the City – when school resumes after an extended holiday break.”


He didn’t respond to a follow-up question asking if the city had received more complaints in January.

City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey heads the Public Works, Sanitation and Environment committee. Kara Johnson, her chief of staff, said Ramsey’s office hasn’t received any complaints about malfunctioning flashers, but the city’s public works department told her they’re aware of the problem.

A problem throughout the city

Even with the repairs made in the last few weeks, there’s still more work to do. Of 10 flashers on the West Bank, only the two located in Algiers Point were working when we first checked. Last week, those same two were working. Four weren’t. Three displayed a low battery signal, blinking briefly in unison. On the last sign, one of the two lights was out.

Sometimes beacons flash when school isn’t in session — such as Jan. 19, when students were off for Martin Luther King Jr.  Day.

And some flash at the wrong time of day. At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 20, the beacons on the 2100 block of Louisiana Avenue were on. That was almost two hours before they were supposed to warn drivers to slow down as they approached Holy Ghost Catholic School.

Where the lights are connected to speed-limit cameras, this hurts the city’s pocketbook. Drivers who exceed 20 mph during the posted times aren’t ticketed if the flashers aren’t working, according to the city.

Eighteen flashers connected to speed-limit cameras weren’t working when we first checked, including both on Bienville Street near Pierre A. Capdau Charter School in Mid-City. The second time, 11 of them weren’t working.

Steve Myers / The Lens

A bus drives past a broken school flasher outside Stuart Hall School for Boys on South Carrollton Avenue at 7:10 a.m. on Jan. 7.

Told of The Lens’ findings in mid-January, the city of New Orleans provided a statement from  Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan, the city’s public works director.

“The beacons are solar powered and they may not operate during persistent overcast conditions,” he said in the statement. “Motorists are encouraged to be mindful of all posted roadway speed limits and pay especially close attention in school zones.”

The city’s bid specifications, however, say that the flashers are supposed to operate for a month without being recharged.

Jernigan said that city law doesn’t require beacons in school zones, but “they were added as an extra safety precaution.”

Such flashers have been found to reduce drivers’ speed more than signs alone. Cars slowed down 5 to 7 mph on roads with speed limits of 30 to 40 mph when flashers were present, according to a study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“If the light isn’t working, people will be less apt to respond appropriately,” said Dick Doane, who worked on the study.

Are school zone flashers working in your neighborhood?

Results of a Lens survey of all flashers in active school zones on Jan. 8 and 8. The city later fixed 20 to 30 lights.

What’s the culprit, solar panels or batteries?

The city has known about this for some time. During a June 2013 City Council committee meeting, two top city officials said the city’s revenue from speed-limit cameras was down in part because school-zone flashers weren’t working properly.

“If the lights aren’t on, we don’t issue the ticket,” said Chief Financial Officer Norman Foster. He added that “the equipment is just challenging to maintain.”

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson responded: “Well, that’s a shame. Is that in the process of being corrected?”

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said Public Works was in the process of hard-wiring many flashers. He said Jernigan had a plan to fix the lights by Aug. 1, 2013, when school would be back in session.

Howard told The Lens that the city has hard-wired flashers “in at least five locations.”

A school bus passes a non-working school flasher on Higgins Boulevard, near the temporary campus for McDonough 42 in the 9th Ward, at 7:10 am on Jan. 8. The solar panel at the top of the pole is supposed to face south; it’s facing east-northeast. The manufacturer says that solar panels must be aligned properly to charge the batteries.

Abe Handler / The Lens

A school bus passes a non-working school flasher on Higgins Boulevard, near the temporary campus for McDonough 42 in the 9th Ward, at 7:10 am on Jan. 8. The solar panel at the top of the pole is supposed to face south; it’s facing east-northeast. The manufacturer says that solar panels must be aligned properly to charge the batteries.

There could be an easier solution: Replace the batteries and make sure the solar panels are installed correctly.

The solar panels are made by Carmanah, a Canadian company that specializes in solar-powered traffic systems. The company’s user manual recommends that its solar panels face the equator to catch the most sunlight. The Lens observed several beacons with solar panels that don’t face south, and even some pointed north.

“Full solar exposure is critical,” the manual reads. “Shading even a small portion of the solar panel will significantly reduce its ability to charge the battery bank.”

Some flashers in New Orleans are shaded by trees and installed under overpasses.

Another problem appears to be old batteries. Many of the malfunctioning flashers around the city blink quickly in unison, barely visible to drivers —the manufacturer’s signal for a low battery.

The lights were installed in 2008, and the batteries are supposed to last five to seven years.

Jack B. Harper Electrical installed them at a cost of $1.3 million, which FEMA covered as part of the Hurricane Katrina recovery. The company maintained the lights through 2011.

Now the city is responsible for maintenance. This year and last, the city has budgeted for three technicians to attend to the school lights and traffic signals. Depending on what needs to be fixed, the city or Harper handles it, Howard said.

Schools move; flashers don’t

A host of circumstances, ranging from shuttered schools to varying school calendars, contribute to the confusion regarding which zones are enforceable.

Many of the city’s schools never reopened after Hurricane Katrina, but the old school-zone signs are still there. In the years since, schools have opened in temporary locations and then moved to permanent homes. Many of those flashers remain, but they don’t work.

A school zone beacon remains on Washington Avenue in Central City, but there's no school nearby.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

A school zone beacon remains on Washington Avenue in Central City, but there's no school nearby.

Last year, Harriet Tubman Charter School moved eight blocks down General Meyer Avenue, a major thoroughfare on the West Bank. The city says there are two flashers at the old location; there’s actually just one. The first time we checked, it wasn’t working. The second, it displayed the low battery warning.

And at the new location, the former site of O. Perry Walker High School, there are no flashers.

“People really speed down General Meyer,” said Tubman principal Julie Lause, “and we’ve definitely had some close calls.”

Over the summer, a charter network employee asked Ramsey’s office if the city would install flashers at the new school. One of Ramsey’s staffers relayed the request to Public Works.

“We have no intention of installing any additional school flashers at this time,” responded Cheryn Robles in an email, noting that there is a traffic light with a pedestrian crossing at an intersection in front of the school.

Adding to drivers’ confusion is the fact that the 40-some charter school networks have their own calendars, in addition to the private schools throughout the city. Some charters operate on a quarter system, with one or two weeks between quarters. Others are in session practically year-round with only a few weeks off in the summer.

Carmanah’s flashers can handle this, according to the user manual. They can be programmed for 500 days at a time, which the city required in its bid specifications.

The city doesn’t even know where all the flashers are. In response to a public records request, the city provided a list of all flasher locations, 163 in all. The Lens couldn’t find lights at 26 of them. In other cases, flashers were there but the school had closed or moved. Some signs were removed during construction.

Lause, the principal at Harriet Tubman, said school-zone signs remain posted in her neighborhood although the school is no longer there. She said that encourages people to ignore the signs.

“People are a little jaded,” she said, “like, ‘I don’t have to slow down because there isn’t a school there.’”
The following Lens staffers contributed to this story: Steve Beatty, Karen Gadbois, Abe Handler, Charles Maldonado, Bob Marshall, Steve Myers and Tom Thoren.

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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.

  • Good journalism, exposing a potential disaster before it happens; maybe the City will give it serious attention now. Sad that the only time the Council brought it up was in connection to profit-making speed-cams. Just like no-parking signs, meant to control traffic but used to squeeze the tourists and as an illegal poor-tax. Here’s one story I’m working on, hopefully The Lens will find time and resources to look into it:

  • BigAl1825

    The flashers I pass daily on my way to work have improved recently, but they were awful for years. They flashed for a month one summer when school was out. They didn’t work when school started, although the traffic camera sometimes did (interesting to learn they don’t issue tickets in that circumstance – I wonder how true this claim actually is or if drivers had to lose work time to show up in court and fight the ticket).

    This city seems to have a disproportionate number of these issues, along with basic traffic light malfunctions. I have seen lights do things here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and that frankly should not be possible. Greens in all directions, for example, being the absolute worst. Or reds in all directions that never change. This happened so frequently at one light that I eventually learned to pass the stopped cars in front of me that were never going to go because they had not figured it out.

    Then you have the “basic” light malfunction, with yellow in the primary direction of traffic and red in the secondary. No one here seems to understand that a flashing yellow means “caution” not “stop.” You don’t yield to traffic in the cross-direction when you have a yellow. But I can’t completely fault the people when malfunctions are so common that some of them just opt to be overly cautious. It’s not as frustrating as people who stop at intersections with no stop sign, although even that I understand since sometime the sign is just missing and hasn’t been replaced.

  • nickelndime

    The flashers ARE working in my area, but the schools AREN’T – even the ones that are OPEN! HELLO! Nadine’s got a lot of pressing problems in her District, BTW – things that flashing lights won’t fix – not even the BLUE ones. HELLO! All kidding aside, GOOD WORK, LENS TEAM! We (ASP – that’s my pet snake ASP and I) see that everybody contributed to this story (well almost everybody). Cops and crossing guards (what’s that?) work well too – especially when motorists see three NOPD cars lined up at 4:45 PM around Brother Martin High School on any given Friday (no flashers – just signs), and a couple of motorists’ cars pulled over. Yeah, that definitely works. 02/05/2015 12:25 PM

  • Marta Jewson

    In an email response to The Lens’ article published today, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell wrote:


    School Transportation Safety is a matter that is a major concern of mine that I began working on one year ago after the tragic death of Shaud Wilson when he attempted one year ago this week to cross a busy street to his school bus stop and was killed by a hit and run driver. I called a public hearing through the Health, Education and Social Welfare Committee, in cooperation with the Transportation Committee, to examine the issue of school transportation safety. It became clear through the hearing that the transition to a largely charter school district has eliminated the traditional governance structure which managed school transportation. This makes it doubly difficult to keep the City informed of school changes, school locations, where school zone lights were necessary, etc.

    We heard about students standing in front of blighted properties waiting for buses, malfunctioning school zone equipment, no crossing guards, poor infrastructure, and skyrocketing costs of school bus transportation.

    Out of that hearing, I fashioned a School Transportation Safety working group that has meet over the past year to develop a set of recommendations for creating a safe environment for students travelling to and from school.

    Members of the working group included the Cowen Institute, RTA, RSD, OPSB, the City’s Health Department, NOPD and Department of Public Works, representatives from the Regional Planning Commission, Charter Management Organizations, individual charter schools, the Louisiana Public Health Institute, charter school collaboratives, Bike Easy, Kids Walk Coalition, New Orleans Kids Partnership and others.

    This hardworking group has developed a comprehensive set of recommendations for school transportation which are grouped in two main categories: managing transportation costs through coordination and other alternatives; and creating a system for accountability on school transportation safety including launching a major citywide transportation safety campaign.

    On March 8, another joint committee meeting with Transportation and Community Development is being planned to report back to the public on these findings and to discuss implementation of ideas moving forward. Currently, some members of the task force are currently writing two Safe Routes to School grants that will help the City strengthen its role by creating a Safe Routes to School office in the Health Department and coordinating efforts to make the streets and sidewalks safer for children and citizens. If approved, the grant will also fund infrastructure improvements in school zone markings, providing training and stipends for crossing guards, and making sure there is a system in place for the City to be aware of the safety needs of every school.

    Thanks for your concern and interest in this matter. I do appreciate you, especially as the anniversary of Shaud’s death was this week.

    LaToya Cantrell

  • nickelndime

    How do I write a response to what I just read that LaToya Cantrell just wrote and not get kicked off by THE LENS monitor!?! Let me think…maybe THE LENS TEAM is still out on the streets (it’s school-zone flashing-light time). Here’s a start: I do not smoke – tobacco products. Ha! But reading what LaToya just wrote makes me want to LIGHT UP. Having said that, let me say this. LaToya will NOT BE the next mayor of New Orleans – even if my ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) and I have to “take to the streets” and “take back the streets” of this city one by one, pothole by pothole, barricade by barricade! 02/05/2015 4:02 PM

  • nickelndime

    The “flashers” isn’t/aren’t the only thing that is/are broken. The “thread” to IHS ended in June 2014, but it wasn’t/isn’t over. Have a lookee at this “post.” “Former BESE-member, millionaire insurance executive, Leslie Jacobs, loves KIPP as much as her brother, insurance millionaire executive, Stephen Rosenthal, loves FirstLine (the CMO that he runs – with the money). The insurance business is booming – dba ‘usual’ n Louisiana. And all of this is happening while another nonprofit charter (school) is stripping the former Rabouin building of copper for ca$h !!! That isn’t the best part. They are going to blame the former (since deceased) CEO, Anthony ‘Tony’ Amato.” Greedy ! Greedy ! Greedy! 02/07/2015 11:33 PM

  • nickelndime

    Anthony “Tony” Amato is dead. RIP. His wife and five children, whom he brought from New York, have “left…” Charge Nan Ryan. When you put Nan under pressure, she will squeal on Sean Wilson and the nonprofit charter board (Sean left his previous position under scrutiny and audit questions) to become the CEO at IHS. Former accountant was fired because she started asking questions about Sean Wilson’s expenditures at another BESE-authorized school. The audit firm did not like. And this is what happens when…nobody is paying attention. 02/07/2015 12:07 AM

  • nickelndime

    If the nonprofit board that runs IHS paid Anthony Amato (#7 of the “Highest-paid nonprofit executives: Charter Schools” – CityBusiness – and this was from the 2012 IRS 990 minimal reporting) an annual salary of $146,396 (not including “other”), then it seems that somebody should be able to explain what happened postmortem. Why is the OPSB being asked to explain? This is clearly an RSD problem. O wait, I can see it now – allegedly from the RSD and the LLA. Tony did it – but it’s all over now. 02/08/2015 1:13 AM