NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The New Orleans City Council’s Community Development Committee took a hard look at the NOLA Public Schools district’s request for $1.5 million from the city’s Harrah’s Fund — generated from payments from the Harrah’s New Orleans casino as part of a lease agreement with the city. Some council members indicated that they preferred to use the money for early childhood education programs, rather than the district’s priorities.

Council members said they will make a decision on the request at next week’s regular council meeting. 

Council members said they weren’t satisfied with district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s request, which would be split equally among three district programs — the Travis Hill School at the city’s jail, the district’s Office of Student Support, which houses social workers and tracks truant students, and the Center for Resilience, a small high-cost program that helps students who’ve experienced trauma.

“Over the years the Harrah’s Fund has allowed us to serve some of our most vulnerable students,” Lewis said. “The Harrah’s dollars have allowed us to meet the critical needs of our students since 2004.”

Members requested more information from Lewis, and Councilwoman Kristin Palmer also noted her interest in directing more city funding to early childhood education. This comes months after a proposed change to city property taxes that would have shifted millions of dollars away from the city’s public library system and toward other city priorities, including infrastructure and economic development. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she planned to take $1.5 million of the money and put it toward early childhood education programs. But voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposals in the December election.

“It’s nothing against OPSB but when we look at leveraging limited resources I think it makes so much more sense to invest in our little ones now,” Palmer said later in the meeting, after a later early childhood education presentation.

Since 2004, the district has received money from the Harrah’s Fund each year, but the casino’s new lease with the city, signed in 2020, no longer explicitly directed funds to the parish school district. It included a new provision allowing the city to direct the funding to “education” at their discretion. 

“Before we approve any type of funding, I think we need to have a broad picture of how resources will be given to our students over the summer,” Palmer said, noting she was worried about learning loss during the pandemic.

Lewis asked again for the approval, noting it was part of funding factored into the current school year budget.

“The funds that are being allocated today are for the current school year budget that ends June 30,” Lewis said. “These are already in our budget. … This usually would have happened in the spring of 2020.”

But Palmer again questioned whether the money should be used elsewhere and asked Councilman Jay Banks if they had flexibility to direct the funds elsewhere.

“The lease calls for the funds to be used for education but it doesn’t specify an entity or a purpose for the money — just that it has to be for education,” Banks clarified. 

Palmer again expressed worry about learning loss amid the pandemic.

“I’d really like to see how some of these schools are going to open up these beautiful facilities that we have for our children over the summer to provide enrichment activities,” Palmer said.

The questions led Lewis to ask if the district could count on the money in the future.

“Again, each year we normally get $3 million from Harrah’s, as we prepared our budget last spring that amount was in there,” Lewis said. “Should we as a school district be able to count on the allocation for next school year? Or should we have some kind of other discussion moving forward as far as the partnership we’ve had since 2004?”

Regarding the traditional $3 million allotment, Banks said that moving forward, “We will definitely have to have conversations about how this money can best be utilized.”

“We need to look at our limited resources and our value system as a council … I would hate to rush into something before we get more information,” Palmer said.

The council voted to move the $1.5 million resolution to the full council meeting.

An attempt in 2018 to deny future industrial tax breaks for companies and direct $3 million in school district funding to early education ultimately failed. Meanwhile the city council has steadily increased funding for early childhood education, including $1.5 million last year.

Early Childhood Education

Following the school district’s presentation on its request, Thelma French, the CEO of Total Community Action, and Rochelle Wilcox, the Executive Director of the Wilcox Academy Early Learning Center, gave a presentation on the need for early childhood education funding. 

French said that there is a need to “increase access and availability for high-quality early childhood education for all children.”

“There is such a need in our community, even exasperated by the economic effects of the pandemic,” she said.

The two outlined childcare expenses, citing both a “quality rate” and average rate. The quality rate is $20,000, Wilcox said but noted most centers charge between $6,000 and $8,000 which cannot account for necessary improvements for buildings, teacher training and pay and other improvements that are needed for a quality education.

“We are constantly losing staff — not because they don’t love their job but because Amazon is paying more, or they can make more somewhere else and they just want to take care of their families,” Wilcox said.

Only 18 percent of students receive a free or subsidized seat, French said, noting many more students need them.

“Children are not born at 4. That’s four years after their birth,” Wilcox said, noting the need for 0-3 care. “Early childhood education starts at birth.”

It would be about $65 million per year to serve every student under five in the city, they said, and more than double that for quality services.

“Everyone has a vested interest in this whether you have a child or not. The better educated our population, the more likely it is we will attract … a more educated workforce,” Banks said. “This is a building block that will help us exponentially in the long run.”

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...