School zone light on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Credit: Steve Myers/The Lens

One blazing August afternoon, two city employees were working on a broken school zone light outside St. Rita Catholic School in Fontainebleau.

The light on Broad Place was broken when The Lens checked it in January 2015. Again in May. That September: still broken.

When we checked last month, it was finally working.

Across the city, many school zone lights are working for the first time since we started checking almost two years ago. Almost 80 percent functioned properly when we checked last month, up from 40 to 50 percent on prior surveys.

It’s about time. Monday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city will install 45 new speeding-ticket cameras near school zones.

Michele Benson Huck, who lives near St. Rita, said she noticed the light had been fixed. But people still speed there, she said. She wants more police enforcement or one of those cameras.

“I think people get out there, and it’s wide and it’s smooth and they feel like they are on a racetrack or something,” she said.

The yellow lights are supposed to flash from 7 to 9 a.m. and again from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m., warning drivers to slow to 20 mph. The speed limit applies in all school zones, even high schools, but only elementary and middle schools get the warning lights.

79%Of school zone flashers worked in September52%Worked when we checked last fall

In January 2015, the first time we checked the lights, just 2 out of 5 worked properly. Most didn’t flash at all or blinked quickly to indicate the battery was almost dead. Some of the solar panels were pointed the wrong direction or were shaded by trees, which can keep the batteries from charging.

The next time we checked, the results were about the same. In September 2015, 52 percent worked.

But last month, 99 of 125 lights worked. That’s 79 percent. (We didn’t count lights that are on the city’s list but have been removed for construction, ones near schools that have closed, or those near high schools, which aren’t supposed to have flashers.)

“I’m glad to see that Public Works has made so much progress in fixing the lights and ensuring our children’s safety as they travel to school,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said.

‘We want to bring that mark up to as close to 100 percent as possible,” she said. “Our children and families deserve that.”

On our prior surveys, we’ve found many broken lights near speeding-ticket cameras. This time, all but three of the 30-odd lights near cameras were flashing properly. The city has said it doesn’t issue tickets if the flasher near the camera is broken.

Little action after prior surveys

city workers reprogram school zone light
City workers reprogram the school zone light on Broad Place this summer. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

City council members promised action after we first reported the widespread outages. But there was little improvement when we checked the second time. We found 78 broken lights in May 2015; a city spokesman said the city knew of just 10.

Mark Jernigan, the head of the Public Works Department, blamed cloudy weather. He said 10 cloudy days in a row could kill the battery. The manufacturer, however, says they should be good for a month, which the city required in its bid specifications.

The city pledged to get every light working before school started last year. That didn’t happen. That fall, we reported all the broken lights to the city’s 311 service.

The city made another push this August, replacing batteries and reprogramming some lights.

Last week, we gave the city a list of almost 30 broken lights. They got back to us this week. Workers had replaced more batteries and electronics, reprogrammed others, and noted some where trees are blocking the solar panels.

One light needs to have electricity restored after a power pole was hit nearby. Another was knocked over and needs to be replaced.

By the city’s count, 95 percent of the lights are working, including those they said were fine but didn’t flash when we checked. However, the city isn’t counting two schools that should have lights but don’t. That’s apparently due to confusion over whether they have students in 7th grade or lower.

Are the lights working at your kid’s school?

Independent schools make it hard to coordinate lights

The city has a unique challenge in keeping these lights on schedule because most of the schools are independent charters, answerable to one of about 40 separate boards. They all set their own calendars, and the 20 mph speed limit applies only when school is in session.

Every year, schools open and close. Others move campuses to deal with renovation.

That’s what happened in the Ronald McNair Elementary School building on South Carrollton Avenue. Until last spring, KIPP used the building. When KIPP moved out, the city took the school zone signs down.

ReNEW moved in this year. But there still are no signs, and the lights are off.

“We are in communication with the city about the caution lights,” ReNEW spokesman Scott Satchfield said. He wouldn’t tell us when ReNEW contacted the city.

But Hayne Rainey, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the city didn’t know students are using the building. He said someone at the city would contact ReNEW. “If they are elementary students, then the beacons will be reactivated,” he said.

“Is it going to take a camera or is it going to take one of our kids getting hit?”—Daniela Marx, parent of two at International School of Louisiana

Rainey said the city checks with the Orleans Parish School Board each semester to see if any schools have opened or closed. But it oversees just a third of the schools in New Orleans; most of the others are part of the state-run Recovery School District.

Encore Academy moved out of the John Dibert building on Orleans Avenue last spring. The city took the school zone signs down and turned off the lights.

This fall, International School of Louisiana moved its middle-school students there while its Lower Garden District campus is renovated.

The city didn’t know about that one, either. When we told Rainey the lights aren’t working, he responded that the Public Works Department thought it was a high school. They don’t get school lights. He said the school would have to tell the city that there are middle-schoolers there.

More speeding-ticket cameras on the way

Daniela Marx’s two daughters attend the International School of Louisiana’s campus in the Lower Garden District. She said the light on Magazine Street, one of three near the school, had stopped working, just like it had in prior years.

“I don’t understand how it can work the first two weeks of school and then cut off,” she said.

City workers went out again after we told the city. Rainey said they found trees blocking the solar panels. It’s working again.

Drivers routinely ignore the school speed limit, Marx said. Some have shouted profanity as she and her children try to cross the street.

No one likes ticket cameras, she said, but once they’re installed, “people slow down. Is it going to take a camera or is it going to take one of our kids getting hit?”

Adele Thonn, another parent, said she’s been tracking problems with that light since 2012. “I would urge the city to put a camera on this one if they could get it working,” she said.

The city may do just that. Landrieu said the city expects to bring in an extra $5 million a year from new traffic cameras, mostly in school zones.

That is, if the lights work. We’ll let you know.

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...