The Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously to keep its property taxes rates the same next year, effectively approving a tax increase for many New Orleans residents who have seen their property assessments skyrocket. But the move will bring much-needed funding to local schools, according to dozens who testified Tuesday.
The vote followed an hour-long public hearing on the matter where nearly 30 people spoke in favor of keeping the rates at their current levels, called a “roll forward.”
The roll forward was approved through four resolutions, all of which received unanimous yes votes from the board. It will result in an increase in school property tax revenue of about $24.2 million, more than offsetting an expected loss of $9.1 million in state funding, for a net increase of $15.1 million.
“I’m proud of the steps my fellow board members took today to act as champions for our children and schools,” Board President John Brown said in a writen statement distributed by the NOLA Public Schools district immediately after the vote. “As we heard from our many educators, parents, home owners and fellow citizens earlier, these funds are badly needed. This vote will allow us to make a concerted financial investment in our district’s future as we continue to provide an equitable, challenging and inspiring education for our city’s youth.”
The expected state funding loss was a talking point of many speakers, who stated schools could not do more with less. Regardless of how the board voted, the district would have received less state funding. That’s because a portion of the money the state provides in education funding is based on a district’s “presumed wealth,” which takes assessed home values into account.
This year’s property assessments raised the value of tens of thousands of properties by more than 50 percent, meaning higher property taxes. Some homeowners saw their values triple or double. Thousands appealed and had their values reduced, but even when those appeals are factored in, the overall value of property in Orleans Parish jumped 14.1 percent.
The school district is the second largest taxing authority in New Orleans. The city is the largest. For city taxes, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is proposing a “partial roll forward,” which will still result in an overall revenue increase for the city. The New Orleans City Council is expected to vote on tax rates at its Thursday meeting.
The board’s vote at a special meeting Tuesday evening followed a public hearing on the matter in the afternoon. Nearly 30 people spoke, including many charter group CEOs, and a handful of parents and students spoke in favor of the roll forward.
Claudia Barker, a parent and administrator at FirstLine Schools urged the board to vote in favor of what will amount to a $325 increase per student. She said one of the network’s schools has recently learned 25 percent of its students are English learners and the network needs more financial support to help them.
“I know y’all don’t want to go home tonight feeling like you’re the board that put Orleans Parish behind Jefferson Parish,” Barker said.
Patricia Perkins, the CEO of Morris Jeff Community School, said additional funding would greatly help her Mid-City school. Morris Jeff is an International Baccalaureate school which is an international program that focuses on critical thinking.
“We have to offer many art classes and language classes,” she said. “We are also growing this into our high school which is difficult as a standalone charter school.”
“This is about sustainability for our IB program and growth for our high school.”
Kate Mehok, the CEO of Crescent City Charter Schools said in setting budgets every year, her school leaders consistently say they want to pay employees more, provide the best curriculum and increase enrichment opportunities for students.
“I certainly recognize the challenges around the (property) assessments in New Orleans but our children need and deserve every dollar we can give them” Joey LaRoche, KIPP Chief Strategy Officer, told the crowd.
At the end of the hearing, board member Nolan Marshall Jr. asked if the district could gather an accounting of how charter schools — which operate autonomously — spend the money over the year. The district is now made up entirely of charter schools that do not have the responsibility to OK their expenses with the central office. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district accounts for the way it spends its money and Marshall again asked for a charter-level accounting.
“I heard you loud and clear Mr. Marshall,” Lewis said
Board member Sarah Usdin agreed.
“I also support Mr. Marshall’s motion that we need to report back,” she said.
The majority of speakers were in favor of the roll forward, but one speaker, Emily Wolff from the city’s Office of Youth and Families, apparently came to plead for a different pot of money.
In comments discussing the need for early education opportunities in the city, she said the district ought to consider using some of its “$90 million fund balance” — or reserve fund — for that purpose.
“It’s simply to urge you as board members to put some skin in the game and step up for our city’s youngest children,” Wolff said.
At the later meeting, the district said the amount she stated was inaccurate.
“As a point of clarity, our fund balance was mentioned in public comment,” Lewis said, asking Chief Financial Officer Diane Allison to pull up a slide with information about the district’s coffers.
“It shows a fund balance section of about $55 million,” Allison said, noting much of it was reserved for emergencies.