NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board on Thursday approved a tax measure on its facilities fund property tax that will net an additional $1.7 million in revenues for capital repairs each year. And  NOLA Public Schools district staff explained how they are serving students and holding schools accountable during the COVID-19 era.

The board oversees the NOLA Public Schools district, which welcomed students back to in-person classes earlier Thursday for the first time since the pandemic shuttered schools six months ago. Twelve schools opened to pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students while older students continue to learn online through at least mid-October.

District officials said they will conduct health inspections of each school as they reopen and present any problems found to staff within a day of observing them. Accountability staff requested and received an amendment to the district’s charter renewal process. The process typically relies heavily on standardized test data but those exams were cancelled in the spring due to the pandemic. The change will allow the superintendent to complete a review of any schools that don’t meet the academic standards for renewal. Eighteen schools are up for renewal this fall. 

The board unanimously approved a tax millage “roll forward,” which keeps tax rates the same after a citywide assessment. The measure is effectively a 2021 tax increase for many New Orleans residents who saw their property assessments increase this year. It is expected to bring in an additional nearly $1.7 million for capital repairs on schools. The school district has several property tax millages  — for things such as capital repairs, books, employee salaries and other school associated costs. 

This millage initially passed in 2014 and was intended to pay down bonded debt and start a capital repairs fund for schools. As bonds were retired over the years the left over tax revenue was intended to shift to the capital repairs fund. In early August, the district retired the last bond the money was intended for. The motion on Thursday to roll the mileage rate forward the matched the roll forwards the board approved last year on its other millages.

When the Orleans Parish Assessor completes a reassessment of the city property values, and they rise, millages are required by state law to be “rolled back” to match the previous year’s collection. A taxing authority can then vote to roll them forward and max out their millages, resulting in a tax increase for property owners whose assessments went up. 

“Because there was still debt associated with these millages last year they could not be rolled forward” with the rest, Gay said. The School Facilities Preservation Program generates about $30 million each year, he said.

Last year, the district shifted $10 million from that fund to system-wide needs fund, drawing criticism from some — who thought the money should be invested in facilities. 

Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools Executive Director Ken Ducote praised the board for approving Thursday’s roll forward.

“We commend the board for proposing to keep the current rate. In the past, the reduction has resulted in inequities,” Ducote said.

“You gave the voters the opportunity in 2014 to decide that we would never go back to how buildings were pre-Katrina,” Ducote, who formerly supervised the district’s facilities said. “In doing this you’re saying we’re going to keep on going with our buildings, keep them modern, keep them efficient and not go back to the way it was before.”

Accountability and school operations during COVID-19

Students returned to public school campuses in New Orleans for the first time since they were shuttered in March — but the city remains in phase two of reopening, despite the state moving to phase three.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has said the city will remain in phase two for the time being to focus on reopening schools. 

Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour explained to board members in an afternoon committee meeting that the district evaluates schools and whether they are following social distancing and sanitation protocols. 

“Every school, as they begin, will get an inspection from our facilities and operations team, managing and reviewing the adherence to the operational health and safety standards,” Delcour said. 

“What inspectors are looking for is making sure that processes are followed related to the entry and exit operations, health screenings, mask requirements, intensified cleaning efforts, meal service protocols as well as classroom and group sizes.”

Board member John Brown Sr. asked whether class sizes were able to stay within the phase two limit of 25 people per class, which includes teachers.

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said nearly 38 percent of the city’s pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students elected to continue learning at home.

“Based upon those numbers our classrooms are naturally going to be smaller, given so many of our students are staying at home,” Lewis said. 

Brown also asked how school busing worked during the reopening, and Lewis said only one school reported minor issues.

“Many of our families are making the choice to drop their kids off at this time,” he said.

New process for evaluating charter schools for renewal 

The district is also adjusting how it will evaluate charter schools to determine whether their charter agreements should be renewed at the end of their charter periods. If they are not renewed, charter operators can be cancelled and the schools handed over to other charter groups. Charter renewals are largely based on standardized tests, which were cancelled this spring after the pandemic forced Gov. John Bel Edwards to close schools. 

At a board committee meeting earlier in the day, Chief Schools Accountability Officer Kevin George said renewals will look different this year.

“Obviously we didn’t have testing last spring,” he said. “Our site visits have begun. We have 18 schools going through renewal as well as regular site visits.”

The board also approved an amendment to its policy that directs how charter schools are evaluated and renewed. The amendment will allow schools that don’t meet the academic criteria for renewal to undergo a “comprehensive evaluation” from the district.

Earlier in the day board member Grisela Jackson, who joined the board in June, asked that more specific language be added to the amendment, but it was met with concern from other board members that any change would result in a 90-day setback to pass a new policy. 

“My concern is to strengthen this policy. To straighten this process. To make sure we are as objective as possible when we evaluate these schools,” Jackson said. “The thought of closing schools and bringing in new operators during a pandemic is frightening to me.”

The changes leave any conclusion drawn during the “comprehensive review” up to district staff and the superintendent.

Two public commenters supported the change while one was unable to ring in. New Schools for New Orleans policy director Holly Reid said her organization was consulted while the district developed the policy. 

“We believe that the process did engage in a policy that is fair given the unprecedented challenges of this year,” Reid said. 

One member of the public, Angele DeLarge, was unable to comment due to having an outdated version of Zoom. 

George also said the district completed high school student record audits virtually last spring (before the pandemic the audits were conducted in-person). He said schools generally showed improvement between the fall and spring audit rounds. The district launched the audits last year in response to a graduation scandal The Lens uncovered at John F. Kennedy High School where nearly half the graduating class learned a month after graduation they weren’t eligible for diplomas. 

“This next round will have accountability obligations,” George announced Thursday. 

Officials also said they intend to begin posting agendas earlier so citizens can read the material in advance. The board typically makes meeting material available 24 hours in advance of a meeting, in accordance with state law. 

Lewis said he wanted to make materials available the Friday before Tuesday and Thursday meetings. “That’s what my administration will be proposing during this two month process.”

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...