From 2019, Council members Kristin Palmer and Jay Banks in the City Council chamber. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens) Credit: Michael Isaac Stein

The New Orleans City Council voted on Thursday to include the Mayor’s Office in the process of doling out millions of dollars annually in city education grants from the Harrah’s Casino Fund — money paid to the city by the casino as part of a lease agreement.   

While the disbursal process had previously involved negotiations between the Orleans Parish School Board and the City Council, under the resolution approved on Thursday, the School Board will negotiate with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families to submit a list of funding recommendations to the City Council. 

Thursday was the final meeting for five outgoing council members, who will be replaced by newly elected members next week. The Harrah’s vote came near the end of the meeting, which stretched from mid-morning well into the evening, much of which was taken up by discussion over a proposal to allocate $35 million to fund moving costs for the residents of Gordon Plaza. 

Council members unanimously approved the Harrah’s resolution despite a request from School Board President Ethan Ashley to delay the vote and reevaluate the need for the Cantrell administration’s involvement. 

“Before voting on this resolution it would be my sincerest request to review whether we need to change the process or simply strengthen our relationship,” Ashley wrote in a public comment read aloud by council staff. 

In recent years, the NOLA Public Schools district has drawn challengers for the funding, due in large part to the council’s desire to direct funding to early childhood education. (The district and the School Board primarily oversee K-12 schools, not early childhood education programs.) 

Ashley said the school board received “short notice on this matter of extreme importance” but thanked outgoing Councilman Jay Banks, for keeping OPSB in the process in the final version of the resolution. 

“Let me be clear that this resolution is not ideal for the school district and we believe the council should not see it as such either,” he said. “This resolution seems to be the result of a lack of relationship between the council and school district. The council member’s resolution is inserting a third party entity, the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, who thankfully is willing to help here, but shouldn’t have to.”

Banks, however, argued that the funding was intended to be used for education broadly, not just OPSB’s educational programs.

“Joe [Giarusso] teases me about being a dinosaur and it does have benefits sometimes,” Banks said. “I was actually here when that original legislation was written when the lease with Harrah’s was signed and the intent was that the money be used for education.”

“Now it was a default that it was easy just to say the School Board,” he said. “But it was never absolutely necessary that it just be distributed to the School Board. The intent was that it be used for education and that’s what this does.”

Without any additional comments, the other six council members joined him in the vote to approve the resolution.

Harrah’s Fund

Since 2004, the NOLA Public Schools district has received money from the Harrah’s Fund each year, but the casino’s most recent lease with the city, signed in 2020, no longer explicitly directed funds to the district. Instead, included a new provision broadening the council’s ability to direct the funding to “education” at members’ discretion. 

In recent years, both the council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell have pushed for expanded early childhood education funding. That has included direct funding from the city and an unsuccessful 2020 millage proposal that was backed by Cantrell.

The Harrah’s Fund has traditionally been distributed after the Orleans Parish School Board presented a proposal to the council’s Community Development Committee. 

In the past, those funds went directly to the district, but Harrah’s new lease signed in 2020 broadened the council’s ability to direct the money elsewhere. Last spring, the council sought to further its investment in early childhood education while the district fought for funds it had traditionally received. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. went before the council in April last year to plead for $1.5 million in funding for district-wide programs. He also criticized the council for waiting until 2021 to distribute funds he said should have gone out a year before. 

“These are already in our budget. … This usually would have happened in the spring of 2020,” he said last April. 

The council ultimately approved $1.5 million for the district to fund 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.

But council members told the district not to expect Harrah’s money in the future.

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

In that spring meeting, the council pointed to the school district’s reserve fund as a potential source for programs it wanted funded, arguing the Harrah’s Fund money could be better invested in early childhood education. (State and federal funding for K-12 education cannot directly fund early childhood education seats.)

On Thursday, Ashley criticized the council for letting Harrah’s Fund money languish without disbursing it in a timely manner.  

“It’s my hope that the incoming council won’t let roughly $4 million accumulate without distribution especially when our school system has been rocked by a pandemic, hurricanes and continues to be as we all work to recover,” he said. 

“Overall it’s my hope that we can build a strong partnership to tackle our education issues from early childhood, where we serve as the co-lead agency and largest provider of care in the city to our earliest learners, as well as K-12 instruction.”

With the passage of the resolution, the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families will be at the Harrah’s Fund presentation table in the years. Combined with the council’s expressed interest in funding early childhood programming, it seems likely this will result in increased money directed towards non-OPSB programs. 

Separately on Thursday, the council approved a resolution to place a new early education millage on the April 30 ballot. The council estimates the new millage would bring in about $21 million which could create up to 2,000 early childhood seats with a state match.

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...