NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to fund three NOLA Public Schools programs that work with troubled students at $500,000 each — money that was somewhat in doubt last week when council members asked the district for more information about the contracted programs and pondered spending the money on early childhood education programs — run by nonprofit groups outside the school district’s oversight — instead.

The $1.5 million in total, which comes 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 — was no guarantee, after council members questioned whether they should use the resources elsewhere at a committee meeting last week. 

For years, the school district received money from the Harrah’s Fund annually as required by the lease. But a 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. 

At Thursday’s meeting, council members questioned the three programs and whether the district needed the money for them. They asked if the district was receiving federal pandemic aid and whether it could use its $42 million reserve fund for emergencies.

District officials were at the virtual City Council meeting Thursday, as were dozens of educators and members of the public to offer their support of the three 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.

NOLA Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Stuart Gay said the NOLA Public Schools central office could see up to $5.5 million in pandemic aid as part of the federal stimulus package passed earlier this year. He also noted the district would only receive money for the work it did because federal aid is given through reimbursements.

Council members then asked about the district’s fund balance.

“If you all have a fund balance you’re sitting on, and it’s administratively restricted, can you all unrestrict it?” councilmember Jared Brossett asked.

“The first reserve is for emergency purposes, around $42 million is currently in that pot. Our second reserve, we must reserve some funding in case we have to run a school,” Gay said. “And beyond that we have an unrestricted fund balance and right now that amount is zero.”

“Is the pandemic an emergency?” councilman Jay Banks and several other members asked.

Gay said it is and noted that the district spent $5 million last spring to help schools acquire laptops and hotspots after Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all schools to close in mid-March.

The three programs funded by the Harrah’s dollars serve smaller populations of students, Lewis said, making it harder to keep them afloat in the way a school with a large enrollment can operate.

“You have fewer students so you’re going to have fewer [state per pupil] dollars, and all the various services, therapists, are very expensive,” Lewis explained. “The ultimate goal is to transition them back to their home school.”

The Center for Resilience currently enrolls 45 students. 

“We’re one of the few districts in Louisiana that’s doing this. Normally what would happen is a student in crisis may be admitted to the hospital,” Lewis said. “These are students who are going to school every single day but the regular classroom environment is not what they need at this particular time. Outside of us doing it — it does not exist.”

Leaders and staff at several schools spoke in favor of the program during a public comment period, noting they have students who have transitioned in and out of it. One teacher said the center is also a benefit to the classroom the student leaves behind, particularly if they were disruptive in class.

“We rely on these services to support our families,” Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok said. “In a mostly decentralized system of schools, these three areas make sense for a centralized system.”

The council ultimately voted unanimously to provide the $1.5 million after dozens of public comments largely in favor of the school district’s request. 

Still, Lewis was seeking assurances about the funding in future budget years. 

“If the council is going to go in a different direction it’d be very helpful to know that,” Lewis said. 

“I would hope you would build the $1.5 million into your own budget next year,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said.

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...