School lights were blinking Monday morning at Benjamin Franklin Elementary\’s campus on Jefferson Avenue. However, the building is unoccupied this year while it undergoes renovations. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Drivers saw flashing yellow lights near schools in New Orleans on Monday morning, the first day of the school year that lower speed limits are enforced.

But 50 of the city’s 86 schools were already in session before Monday, according to the Orleans Parish School Board’s list of start dates. That includes a dozen or so schools with staggered starting dates for different grades.

Drivers must slow to 20 mph for two hours every morning and afternoon that school is in session. In New Orleans, where all but four public schools are charters, students return to class between July 18 and Aug. 23.

Charter schools, which are privately run but receive public funds, set their own calendars. It’s one of the many things they have the freedom to decide, such as staffing and curriculum, as long as they meet academic and financial standards.

That means the city’s Department of Public Works has a lot of calendars to track. The lights can be programmed to fit each school’s calendar, but to simplify things, the city activates all flashers on a single date.

“This date is based on school board calendars and when classes begin for the majority of schools in New Orleans,” city Communications Director Tyronne Walker said in a written statement.

Until recently, the city had trouble just keeping the lights on. On our first survey of school-zone lights in January 2015, we found just two in five worked properly.

This spring, we found 82 percent functioned as they should. That’s the most we’ve seen.

The improvements came as the city announced it would install more traffic cameras and use a small fleet of mobile cameras to enforce school-zone speed limits.

Walker said the city checked batteries, lights, and electrical lines for all flashers this summer.

Not only does the city need to know when schools open, it needs to know where they are.

The lights were blinking at Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School campus on Jefferson Avenue on Monday morning, but the campus was silent. That’s because the school, often called Baby Ben, moved while the building is being renovated.

The city did not immediately respond to a question Monday about why those lights were on.

Similar issues have cropped up at other schools.

Last fall, the city removed school-zone signs and turned off the flashers at two schools. The city fixed the problems after we reported it.

In both cases, a charter operator had moved out and a new operator had moved in. The city apparently didn’t know the buildings had new occupants.

That’s common in the city as new charters open up, underperforming ones are closed, and schools move from one location to another as repairs from Hurricane Katrina are completed.

How does the city know which lights to turn on?

“We activate the same active beacons from the previous school year,” Walker said in an email last week, “unless we are notified of a change by the school board or an individual school.”

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...