Drivers slammed on their brakes Monday morning as they approached Thurgood Marshall School on Canal Street. But the school zone lights weren’t flashing, and students have been gone for more than a week.

Duris Holmes, an attorney and board member at Benjamin Franklin High School, passed by that morning.

“You could see it going through people’s minds: The light’s not flashing, school’s probably out — am I OK?” he said.

Drivers are confused. Last week, school lights flashed throughout the city, even though most schools were on summer break.

The city turned off all lights on Friday afternoon. So drivers may think they don’t need to slow down anywhere.

But a few schools are still open, like Morris Jeff Community School and Robert Russa Moton Charter School. There, the 20 mph speed limit is enforceable for two hours in the morning and afternoon as long as school is in session.

Holmes regularly passes Morris Jeff, which doesn’t have flashers and shares a school zone with Warren Easton Charter High School. “Until I’ve driven by there a few days, and can tell school’s not in session, I’ll go 20,” he said.

The city’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, set their own calendars. That’s part of the broad autonomy granted to charters as long as they meet academic, financial and organizational goals.

Until recently, the city has had a hard time maintaining the lights. In January 2015, a Lens survey found fewer than half worked properly. This April, 82 percent worked correctly, the highest we’ve seen in five surveys.

The improvements came as Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced an expansion of the city’s traffic cameras, focusing on school zones.

Calendars vary

Depending on the school, the first day of school could be anytime from late July to around Labor Day. The last day of school could be in early May or as late as June.

So Kimberly Davis plays it safe: She drives 20 mph anytime she passes a school.

“There are so many different schools. I kind of feel for the person in charge of that.”—Duris Holmes, attorney and Ben Franklin High School board member

She passes Lafayette Academy on Carrollton Avenue each day. Last week she crawled along at 20 mph, observing the flashing lights, even though the school year ended May 19.

“Essentially, if the light is flashing, I’m going to slow down,” she said.

School zone speed limits are only enforceable when students are there.

Readers observed school lights flashing Friday on South Claiborne Avenue at Nashville. Two schools are there. Eleanor McMain Secondary School wrapped up for the summer on May 16; Ursuline Academy ended May 24.

The city’s system is capable of dealing with different calendars; each light can be programmed for 500 days at a time. The city made that a requirement when it bought the lights.

But the city’s Department of Public Works uses a blanket approach. It decided to turn off all  lights Friday.

“There are so many different schools,” Holmes said. “I kind of feel for the person in charge of that.”

Will you get a ticket?

Davis sometimes passes Brother Martin High School on Elysian Fields Avenue. Like most high schools, it doesn’t have lights out front.

“I’m going to slow down because I’m not entirely sure what’s going on” at the school, she said. “You just never know.”

“I’m going to slow down because I’m not entirely sure what’s going on” at the school.—Kimberly Davis

Photo enforcement cars were parked on Canal Street at Lopez Street on Monday morning, monitoring traffic near Morris Jeff and Warren Easton. There aren’t flashers there, either.

Morris Jeff students have class until Friday, which means the 20 mph speed limit is enforceable. But you won’t get a ticket in the mail.

“The mobile traffic safety units deployed in school zones are no longer enforcing the school zone speed limit,” city spokeswoman Erin Burns wrote in an email.

So what would Davis do if she saw those cars? “If it’s not a Saturday or a Sunday, my initial response is going to be to slow down,” she said. “Does the school look open? Because I do not want a ticket.”

Davis and Holmes said it would help drivers if there were lights at every school.

“I wish there were lights there,” Holmes said about Morris Jeff, “and that there was a confidence that light was only going to be on when the schools are in session.”

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...