The Department of Public Works relies primarily on public complaint calls to learn which school-zone lights are malfunctioning, rather than regularly surveying the caution signals, department director Col. Mark Jernigan told the New Orleans City Council on Tuesday.

“So I guess my first question is, is there an audit?” Councilwoman Stacy Head asked during the Public Works, Sanitation, & Environmental Committee meeting. “It seems like we ought to have a way to be able to audit our lights to make sure that they are working.”

The answer: not really.

“We depend upon reports from 311 and the schools as far as the maintenance of school zone flashers,” Jernigan said.

Committee Chairwoman Nadine Ramsey, introduced the school zone lights item with information from two Lens surveys.

In January, The Lens found 87 of the lights were not working properly. In May, a second survey revealed 78 broken lights — a net improvement of nine working lights.

“How did we get to the point that we had such a high rate of failure during the school year?” Head asked.

Jernigan said he disagreed with The Lens categorization of non-functioning lights. The two-light beacons are supposed to flash alternately at specific times. If the flasher did not do that, The Lens considered the unit to not be working properly, or malfunctioning.

“So you’re saying that the things they reported as nonfunctioning are not in your estimation nonfunctioning?” Head asked.

Jernigan didn’t answer the question directly, but talked about different levels of working order.

“We try to prioritize our maintenance of the system based on the need,” he said. “And to me, a high priority is a flashing beacon where the lights are not flashing, versus one where one light’s flashing and the other one may not be flashing.”

Jernigan said he has limited resources — just two signal technicians and two additional workers in the sign and signal shop.

“They have responsibility for not only the school zone flashers, but all the signal lights at intersections in the city,” he said.

Ramsey asked how the department prioritizes school zone light repairs.

“Normally what we do once we get a report that a school zone beacon is not operating … is we go out and do a diagnostic,” he said. “We rely primarily on 311.”

The main issues, he said are burned out bulbs, bad flasher components or clocks that need to be replaced.

Jernigan doesn’t have a centralized school system to work with. The city is made up largely of charter schools which are allowed to set their own school calendars and school days. Still, city code sets the time for the flashers to operate: from 7 to 9 a.m. and 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. on school days.

The city previously said it uses school calendars available online to create the best fit for the school lights.

But Jernigan’s doing things differently this summer.  Jernigan said he has contacted both the Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District to get a list of every school that will be open this fall.

He’s also asked for clarification on building assignments. For example, Harriet Tubman Elementary moved into an old high school campus; schools housing students older than seventh grade aren’t considered for school zone lights.

“I’m just trying to figure out, how could we as a city push some of this responsibility onto people who happen to be in the field already,” Head said.

She suggested school operation managers or others who work daily at school sites, and she asked city employees such as police officers to make note of malfunctioning lights.

Jernigan said his team is working to repair the lights over the summer.

“My expectation is that we’ll have all this maintenance work done and we’ll be ready to go at the start of the new school year.”

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...