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

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Charles Maldonado/The Lens

A broken school zone light on the 3000 block of St. Claude Avenue.

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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