NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

It’s budgeting season for schools, and financial security amid a recession caused by COVID-19 is on the mind of the NOLA Public Schools district and its charters, especially because one source of revenue for city schools — New Orleans’ tourism industry — has been hit particularly hard.

At a virtual Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting Tuesday, board members approved a measure that would allow schools to hang onto “negative deferred revenue” from this school year, money they were allocated based on last year’s pre-COVID financial projections, until the payments once again outpace projections. Normally, the schools would have to pay that money back. Eventually, the excess funding would be kept to pay off the “loan.” It will go before the full board Thursday.

Board members also expressed concern at collecting annual grants from the New Orleans City Council’s Harrah’s Fund. The district uses those grants to support the Travis Hill School for students incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center and Youth Study Center, as well as the district’s therapeutic day program, among other things.

“If the city does not release the Harrah’s funding, we will have to make drastic cuts to hold up the programming at the detention center,” board member Woody Koppel emphasized while talking to fellow board members. 

Board member Ben Kleban agreed, pointing out that over his term of service the district’s general fund has gone down by about $10 million. 

“I say that … because I think there is this perception that we are flush with cash. And that is simply not the case,” he said. “Year-to-year we continue to see some real sustainability questions.”

In regards to the deferred revenue relief, the district has estimated negative deferred revenues in this fiscal year to be between $1.3 million and $6.4 million, so the district could end up covering about $7 million for its charter schools. NOLA Public School Chief Financial Officer Diane Allison said the resolution came from a working group of school finance leaders and the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans. 

“It’s just to better understand and mitigate those negative effects of COVID-19 on school finances,” Allison explained. 

Ken Ducote, the head of the Greater New Orleans Charter School Collaborative, said he supported and appreciated the resolution.  

“At this time of uncertainty, where you have the possibility of funds going up and down, although the deferred revenue is a relatively small portion of a total budget of a school, it’s nevertheless significant,” he said.

“Any kind of wild fluctuations in that amount of money is going to create instability for student services, for the programs and for the faculty,” he said. “And this is a time when wherever we can make something more stable, we need to do that.”

A representative from NSNO and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools also supported the resolution.

“This proposal will help soften that blow and make sure schools are able to provide what students need in these challenging times,” NSNO CEO Patrick Dobard said. 

Kleban also supported the resolution. 

“I think the end result is the best-case scenario for schools to help mitigate risk,” Kleban said. “At a time of great uncertainty and great risk, we obviously can’t do it all, we can’t avoid losses entirely but this is a very good step in the right direction on behalf of schools and trying to protect resources for kids.”

Meanwhile, Allison told the board property insurance would likely increase by about 23 percent, with an estimated 6.5 percent increase in flood insurance. When many New Orleans charter operated under the state-run Recovery School District, they were able to purchase property insurance through a statewide pool which was significantly cheaper than flood and hurricane-prone Orleans Parish. In fact, many charter leaders stayed with the RSD for that reason, they said. 

Members of the public request transparency

District and charter officials are mapping out various scenarios to return to school in the fall, if public health officials allow it. The district has formed a COVID-19 task force. 

A few members of the public were on the virtual call Tuesday and asked that the district work to include more voices and open up its task force meetings to the public. Unlike Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide reopening task force, the district’s reopening task force is not open to the public. 

Lauren Jewett, a special education teacher, asked that the district work to include more voices in its reopening task force. 

“The reopening task force has been a way to engage stakeholders, however it is only 12 percent teachers and 3 percent being parents,” she said. 

She also criticized the lack of high school teachers, bus drivers, nurses, teachers’ aides and cafeteria workers. 

“And yet these will be the people most responsible for implementing the plans,” she said.

A Spanish teacher at New Orleans Math and Science Charter High School agreed. She specifically referenced Dobard from NSNO and Angele DeLarge, from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, who had commented earlier.

“Like other speakers before me I have listened to Ms. DeLarge and Mr. Dobard talk about inclusivity …. And would like to urge that would be a part of the reopening task force,” Jessica Wheeler said. “I’m concerned my colleagues and our students are not represented and to reiterate that people’s jobs, such as custodians .. are not being represented.”

“I would like to ask for consideration of the fact that the reopening task force has decided to not make their meetings public,” she said. “Which is another way of shutting parents, teachers and students out of the process as it carries out”. 

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...