Most school lights in New Orleans are still broken despite city’s efforts

Four months after The Lens reported that school-zone lights were malfunctioning across the city, more than half are still broken.

“That’s unacceptable,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said when told of The Lens’ findings.

And now, with most schools out for the summer, some lights continue to flash, clogging streets as cars slow to 20 mph even though there are no children around.

Landrieu administration spokesman Bradley Howard said the city will fix everything by the beginning of the school year.

“We have made many repairs to school zone beacons,” he told The Lens by email, “and we will spend the summer testing and repairing them so that they are fully functional by the start of next school year.”

The city has said this before. In June 2013, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said there was a plan to fix the lights by that August.

In January, The Lens surveyed all the lights in the city and found that about 60 percent weren’t working.

At a City Council committee meeting in February, Public Works Director Mark Jernigan said, “This is something that definitely has my attention.”

Yet The Lens found 78 broken lights when we went out again in mid-May, before school let out.

How many are on the city’s list of broken lights? 10.

Now that most schools are off for the summer, there’s a different problem. Some of those lights that flashed are still flashing, but there aren’t any kids to slow down for.

School’s out, lights aren’t

Summer started for students at KIPP Believe College Prep two weeks ago. You wouldn’t know it from the flashing lights on Carrollton Avenue on Thursday afternoon.

Even if school were in session, the lights shouldn’t flash for another 45 minutes. Lake-bound cars slowed to 20 mph anyway, backing up traffic.

Carrollton resident David Zemmels said that’s not out of the ordinary.

“The lights are never blinking at the right times,” Zemmels said. “It’s always a double-take.”

He recalled seeing those lights flashing one recent school day at 10:30 a.m. They’re supposed to flash from 7 to 9 a.m. and from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m.

The same thing is happening at some other schools in the city. Schedules vary, but most charter schools in the city let out for the summer in late May.

Thursday morning at 8 a.m., the school lights on the 4500 block of South Carrollton were off. A couple of blocks away at the other end of the school zone for Esperanza Charter School, they were flashing. Esperanza hasn’t been in session for two weeks.

Pierre A. Capdau Charter School’s last day was May 19, but the lights nearby on Canal Street were flashing Thursday morning.

The city’s $1.3 million light system should be able to handle the different schedules, with the ability to program each light individually. But the city does not collect individual school calendars.

Instead, the city’s Public Works Department looks at schools’ published calendars to see “which dates provide coverage for all schools in New Orleans and adjusts the coverage dates as needed or upon notification by individual schools,” Howard said.

Just nine more lights working despite city’s repairs

Earlier this year, The Lens surveyed school lights and found that 87 were malfunctioning.

A couple of weeks later, after we told the city what we found, we checked again and saw that some of them had been fixed. Howard said the city had responded to people’s complaints.

In May, we found 78 malfunctioning lights, including 62 that didn’t flash at all when they were supposed to.

Others flashed a low-battery warning, blinking quickly in unison. One of the two bulbs was out on several more.

The city has just 10 locations on its list of broken lights. Five don’t work at all, including a few that need new bulbs and two that apparently have broken internal clocks, Howard said. Another five don’t keep the correct time.

Are school lights working in your neighborhood?

The city has blamed the problems on the lights’ solar panels, saying they don’t charge the batteries if it’s cloudy for 10 days in a row.

The system should be able to handle a month of bad weather, according to Jeff Smith, a former municipal engineer who was involved in selling the lights to the city. In fact, that requirement was spelled out in the city’s bid specifications.

The Lens also found that some of the solar panels don’t face the right direction. They’re supposed to face south; we found some facing north and even some installed under trees and overpasses.

The city hasn’t responded to our inquiries about installation and whether there are plans to move the panels so they get the most sunlight.

In February, Howard said some of the problems resulted from a downed radio transmitter that schedules the lights. He said the city had ordered a new cable and expected to replace it in early March.

That hasn’t happened. “The radio system has not been completely repaired yet,” Howard said.

A representative from Carmanah, the Canadian company that makes the light system, will be here in the next couple of weeks to help figure out what’s wrong, Howard said.

He said the city has replaced 142 batteries since late last year. That would mean that nearly every school light in the city has a new battery.

City’s goal: Fix lights by the start of school

After The Lens reported its findings in February, three councilmembers promised action.

Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey brought it up at a council committee meeting, where Jernigan said his department had contacted the manufacturer, the state highway department and the city’s technology department for help.

Cantrell said she would raise the issue in a school transportation safety working group in March.

She said last week she will contact Public Works to see if it can “gain significant progress over these summer months,” and she will put school lights on a council agenda.

Councilwoman Stacy Head also said she would ask Public Works how it plans to fix the lights.

“Frankly,” she said, “it is disappointing that the city doesn’t do its own routine audit to make sure that these problems are addressed.”

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.

  • nickelndime

    WELL! This gives new meaning to the old phrase “LIGHTS OUT,” or is it “LIGHT UP.” “CHEESE N RICE!” We’ve got a major problem here. LaToya is a band-aid and this (expletive deleted) city is suffering from a jugular hit! But that’s alright – let’s stabilize the vic – we still got a pulse – I don’t know how, but we got one. STAND DOWN. 06/05/2015 11:23 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Well, pick me up off the floor. Stacy Head thinks “it is disappointing…” You want disappointing? Get a big mirror. I will show you DISAPPOINTING/ED. You all make me want to smoke and gamble. 06/05/2015 11:37 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “DEER IN THE SCHOOL LIGHT!” Not to worry. It doesn’t work. 06/08/2015 3:51 AM DST USA

  • david

    How many deputy mayors does it take to change a light bulb?

  • nickelndime

    “How many deputy mayors does it take to change a light bulb?” At least 9 – one to hold the street map; one to hold the ladder; one to hold the light bulb; one to hold the screw driver (if needed); two to rotate the light fixture, and; three to applaud.
    Sue the city – that should get at least ten lights up and running by the time THE LENS gets into court. The City Attorney will explain what “the city” has done to address the problem. The judge will listen sympathetically to “the city’s” plight…Sound familiar? 06/08/2015 7:01 PM DST USAP

  • nickelndime

    Are the school lights working in your neighborhood? ….ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) has “FALLEN” over – Denzel style – off of my chair, cuz you know ASP sits coiled up right behind me cuz he’s “got my back.” If the City of New Orleans does not care if school lights are working, take that as a “sign.” Perhaps, they (a sign of the signs) never were working pre- and post-Katrina. Have you considered that?! It’s called “baseline.” 06/09/2015 1:15 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    GUFFAW! On Madrid Time. They weren’t working before. Why should anybody think they would be working now! 06/09/2015 1:49 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    The “school lights” AREN’T working, but the “cameras” are. Go figure. Jesus H. Holy Christ! Use Dobard’s AMEX card and Sarah Usdin’s NSNO AMEX card and fix the damn lights. DO DA DAMN TING! The speeding tickets are still being sent out. Go ahead! SPEED. Who am I? The snake from The Garden of Eden. He- he- he- he – this is almost too unbearable – human folly! THE LENS – you all might want to “wrap-up” this story, cuz LaToya can’t fix it, and the City of New Orleans can’t fix, and the OPSB sure as Hell can’t fix it. Oh look! “nickelndime” and his “ASP” are setting their watches (“Equalizer-style”) : Junior Lewis has a meeting with Justice and Beyond TODAY. Now that, you might want to cover. 06/22/2015 1:06 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    ADOPT A BROKEN SCHOOL LIGHT! Get Ron Forman on this (subliminal message – get Ron to buy into this) and (THY WILL BE DONE ON LOUSY LOUISIANA EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN). WE want to see what Ron looks like on the “next level.” This “ain’t going to be pretty” like it says in the song lyrics.
    06/28/2015 3:31 AM DST USA

  • Jimmy Burland, J.D.

    Funny, the speed limit cameras always seem to work, in or out of school times! I’ve gotten hit twice on a Sunday with a school zone speed camera! Maybe if the city implemented a revenue-raising measure for school lights they work work! LOL

  • nickelndime

    You got dat rite, “Jimmy Burland, J.D.,” the cameras work but the school lights don’t. Follow da damn money trail to the City of New Orleans, Photo Safety Program (my ASP! – that’s my pet snake ASP), Tempe AZ 85285-2091, 504 (hiss-s-s-s) 658-8082. Log in and let the City of New Orleans “rack it up.” Talk about being VIOLATED!
    07/16/2015 5:38 PM DST USA