The Orleans Parish School Board’s legal committee on Tuesday took no stance on the district’s request to redirect $10 milion from a fund used for facility repairs to academics.  The move would require a change to a 2014 law that dedicates the money solely for school facilities.

Their decision came after two former district facility department employees criticized the district’s proposal, citing the need to keep post-Katrina facility investments and repairs working well. The district’s proposal is one of 10 priorities in its proposed agenda for the upcoming state legislative session. The committee chose not to take a position on the proposal, instead moving it to the full board’s Thursday meeting without a recommendation.

The district’s proposal is to shift $10 million from the school facilities preservation fund to schools, special education and a “system-wide needs fund.” The proposal states it will continue to deliver the $35 million it promised in 2014 to facility maintenance and repair. But not everyone agrees with that interpretation.

“The board did not commit to $35 million a year; you committed to the funds that would be generated,” former district facility head Ken Ducote said.

Ducote now leads the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools. He was initially cut off at two minutes, as is customary for public speakers. A board member allowed him to finish speaking.

“The other commitment was complete transparency,” he said. “And now we’re very glad there are reports about what has happened the last four years.”

Another former employee, Lona Hankins, criticized the district’s lack of a comprehensive plan for facilities. In New Orleans’ unique decentralized school system, the district is in charge of major facility repairs and charter schools are in charge of maintenance.

“I need to remind you of what the buildings looked like pre-Katrina,” Hankins said. “I chose a school for my child based on the conditions of the bathrooms.”

A presentation showed that since 2016, district has only needed a portion of the money it’s collected to fund repairs. But Hankins said she was concerned that future repair needs are unknown.

“Just because we have three years of a data point, that does not indicate a trend,” she said.

A 2014 state law created the school preservation fund. It’s made up partly of a dedicated property tax — intended only for “preservation, improvement and capital repairs of all existing public school facilities,” not academics  — that Orleans Parish voters approved that year.

But the property tax revenues will not be included in the $10 million the district wants to shift. That will come from sales tax revenues that go into the fund.

“This legislative proposal does not direct any money that was dedicated by voters away from school facility preservation,” spokeswoman Tania Dall wrote in a statement provided after the meeting. “In addition to the millage that voters approved for facility preservation, the state legislature also dedicated a portion of the district’s sales tax to facility preservation.”

The law required both the state-run Recovery School District and the home school district — the parish school board in this case —  to establish parallel facilities offices. Money was allocated to each district based on enrollment. Funding was further divvied up by enrollment per campus, with funds required to stay with the campus. Now that the RSD has returned its New Orleans schools to local control, that money is in the the school board’s hands.

District may swap historic school for vacant land

Also on Tuesday, the board’s property committee advanced a proposal to swap property with the Housing Authority of New Orleans in exchange for vacant land near the new Booker T. Washington High School. The school, overseen by charter organization KIPP New Orleans, would use the land for athletic fields.

Three members of the Touro Bouligny Neighborhood Association attended Tuesday’s meeting to criticize the plan, because it could include giving the historic McDonogh No. 7 building on Milan Street to HANO. The 120-year-old building currently houses part of Audubon Charter School.

The district must offer up property it wants to sell to charter schools before turning to other buyers. But the board’s lawyer, Sharonda Williams, said that wouldn’t apply in this case because the deal would be considered a swap — not a sale.

Still, neighbors like Chris Reade, said he had no idea what HANO would do with the property.

“HANO is not exactly a great partner for development and could actually just leave this building fallow,” he said.

Rella Zapletal, the neighborhood association’s president, wrote a letter opposing the transfer.

Chief Operating Officer Eric Seling fielded questions from school board members.

“I will say we initially approached HANO and offered cash,” Seling said. But the agency was more interested in property, he said.

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. said the neighbors were asking the district to do something outside their purview.

“We don’t have the authority to determine the future use of property,” he said.

Board members also questioned the facility’s condition and whether it was fit to be a school. Neighborhood association members said they don’t want to lose a historically significant building or a school in their area.

Board member Woody Koppel asked about the condition of the land that they may acquire near Booker T. Washington along Earhart. The soil on the school site — formerly the Silver City Dump — had to be remediated to make way for the $51 million facility. Koppel wanted to know whether HANO had done the same to the adjacent land.

“I want to make sure we’re not giving up a $4 million building for a $2 million piece of land,” Koppel said, noting the district had done renovation work at McDonogh 7.

Seling said remediation work had been done on the property.

The committee voted 2-1 to move the item to the full board, with Koppel voting no. The item will authorize the district to make an agreement with HANO if it’s approved at Thursday’s board meeting.

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...