NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

With no guarantee that the New Orleans City Council will continue to provide the NOLA Public Schools district with annual funding 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 — district officials asked Orleans Parish School Board members at a Tuesday committee to draw down a special district student fund next school year to help cover some programs previously funded by Harrah’s money.

The proposal comes nearly a month after the City Council approved a $1.5 million allocation from the fund that the district had already written into the 2021 budget. The yearly funding had previously been guaranteed to the school district under the terms of long-term lease agreement between the city and the casino. But a new agreement, signed last year, changed that requirement.  At the late April council meeting, council members told NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. he shouldn’t count on the money again next year.

Now, it appears his administration is shifting to address that reality in new recommendations for the district’s System Wide Needs Fund. Most of that fund has been used for teacher training and certification initiatives, but the district wants to allocate an unused balance to the programs previously paid for with the Harrah’s money.  

“The revenue that we had depended on … was unilaterally removed from us by the City Council,” board member Carlos Zervigon said as staff made their recommendations. “So now we’re trying to figure out how to maintain these award-winning programs that our students depend on.”

Chief School Support and Improvement Officer Dina Hasiotis explained the proposed budget to board members.

“As we close out this year, we found we actually have some additional funds to roll over,” Hasiotis said. The SWNP balance was expected to grow to $3 million next year, according to the district’s presentation. 

The SWNP was created through legislation in 2019 to direct a portion of NOLA Public Schools funding to specific issues affecting all schools in the decentralized, charter-based district. Over its first three years, it is charged to direct $9 million toward teacher recruitment, training, and specialized student programming for students with disabilities and other needs, such as those who are in juvenile detention. Officials spent $2.5 million last year and had initially planned to spend $4.1 million next school year. 

Now, they want to spend $7.1 million next school year. The shift would in effect cover programs previously funded by the Harrah’s Fund.

The district plans put $2 million from the fund balance toward the programs formerly funded by the Harrah’s money. That includes $1.3 million for the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, $700,000 for educating students in secure care — at the Travis Hill School at the city’s juvenile jail and for school-aged students detained at the Orleans Justice Center. 

The proposed fund balance allocations also include an additional $460,000 for teacher talent, which includes various partnerships across the city, including with Xavier University, teachers stipends and money to incentivize teachers to go through various certification programs.

Hasiotis said last year, the district had over 150 requests from teachers for the certification incentive, and were able to fund 50. They hope to increase that this year. The proposed budget also includes an increase in teacher stipends.

The Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund

The proposal also includes $600,000 from the SWNP fund balance going to “programs designed to meet Citywide Exceptional Need Fund needs,” a special education fund. That appeared to cause some concern among school leaders because $600,000 is less than half of the normal CENF budget of $1.3 million.

But that is a separate fund, not related to the SWNP’s funding stream. Officials said that no money is being taken out of that fund to pay for System Wide Needs Program priorities.

“No dollars are being taken from (Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund) to move toward the systemwide needs program,” Hasiotis said.

The CENF provides individual grants to schools for specific students with high needs in a competitive application process. The fund started with $1.3 million for student grants in 2014, but the district has been shifting to fund specialized programs with that money, too.

Hasiotis said that the SWNP allocation will be used for “centralized programming.”

“Over time, we have been phasing down individual payments to schools while supporting and trying to run some centralized programing,” she said. “We are in year two of that pilot to understand how those centralized programs work.”

“So all we’re saying is to continue to fund those pilots through this fund,” she said. She did not explain what the pilot program is. Asked for more details, a NOLA Public Schools spokesperson said the district was working on a response. That information had not yet been provided by the time this story was published. 

Jennifer Coco, the Local Policy Manager for the Center for Learner Equity joined leaders from ReNEW Schools and FirstLine Schools in public comment during the meeting. Coco represents a national nonprofit advocating the rights of students with special needs.

They all asked that the district maintain funding for the program next year. 

“We know as a city we are not efficiently coordinating special ed services for kids and that we can be doing better,” Coco said in a Wednesday interview. “And I think it’s important we continue these conversations about how to more efficiently get kids high quality services and that we do this as one school system.”

Hasiotis said the district will continue to operate the CENF, but that the district is still budgeting for the 2021-22 school year.

“The district is committed to continue to run CENF, we’re just not sure of the total amount at this date,” Hasiotise said. 

Coco said she was glad the district committed to continuing to operate the fund.

“I was concerned that this money would not be on the record for next year to support special education services and I am relieved the district clarified an intent to continue providing this money for the next year and I look forward to hearing the details,” she said Wednesday.

Board member Olin Parker requested a report on the CENF which Hasiotis said they could provide soon.

As board members prepared to vote, Zervigon spoke up to clear the air.

“We’re making this shift this year as we continue to — frankly — fight for our funding for these specialized needs.”

The committee unanimously advanced the funding proposal to Thursday’s full board meeting. 

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...