NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

A proposed property tax dedicated to early childhood education that would fund hundreds of  “high-quality seats” for infants to three-year-olds in the city could also be a financial boon to the NOLA Public Schools district under a contract approved by the Orleans Parish School Board on Tuesday. 

Under the terms of the contract — a cooperative endeavor agreement between OPSB, the city of New Orleans and the nonprofit group Agenda for Children — the school district would be paid $1.5 million per year out of collections from the proposed tax to manage enrollment. The contract would take effect if New Orleans voters approve the tax in the April 30 election. 

The tax, which is estimated to raise $21 million annually, will fund 1,000 new early childhood education seats in the city, consultants say. Proponents also say a state grant match could double that number. Right now, the city funds the program at $3 million, which creates seats for 200 children.

The New Orleans City Council will still have to approve the agreement, which has a term of five years. Under city law, all multi-year CEAs must go before the council for a vote. A spokeswoman for Agenda for Children said they’ve agreed to the CEA and will sign it once it’s approved by the council.

The payments to OPSB would be made on a per-student basis: $1,000 per student to run an enrollment program, similar to the web-based lottery system (formerly known as OneApp)  it runs for K-12 schools, and $500 per student for staff. If 1,000 students apply and receive spots in early education centers, the total comes to $1.5 million,  roughly seven percent of projected tax collections. The agreement also includes a one-time payment of $500,000 to the school district for outreach and marketing concerning early childhood seats.

“We want to make sure our obligations are funded,” Orleans Parish School Board member Carlos Zervigon said in an interview Tuesday. 

The district already helps place a small number of early childhood students, but it’s unclear exactly how the $1.5 million would be spent on 1,000 new students in a roughly 45,000 student system.

In an email, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote the district will use the funding to “bolster its support network for families.” 

That will include working with families to select a program, hiring and training additional staff — though the district did not specify how many — and improving its data systems. Alfonzo also mentioned a number of district departments that would be involved but did not provide details on additional staffing or budgetary needs for those departments.

Another $1 million annually would go to administrative costs for Agenda for Children, a nonprofit organization recognized by the state to coordinate early childhood education in the city. Agenda for Children’s CEO Jen Roberts referred questions to Caitlin Berni, a spokesperson for the Yes for NOLA Kids campaign which is backing the tax measure.*

“Those funds cover staffing and oversight of the City Seats program, independent evaluation and quality assurance,” Berni wrote in an email Wednesday.

Those overhead expenses to the distinct and Agenda for Children represent about 200 early childhood education seats, based on a $12,000 per-student tuition figure that appears in the contract.

“As we further built out our plans for how expansion would work, we recognized that in order to scale up and expand appropriately, we need to devote a portion of funding in the initial years towards center expansion and startup grants, family outreach and enrollment coordination, and teacher training and professional development,” Berni explained in an early March email, before the details in the CEA — including the payments to Agenda for Children — were publicly available. 

“We do still anticipate being able to serve more than 1,000 kids because we will have a greater ability to draw down state matching funds,” she said. “We also anticipate being able to grow the number of seats in future years as some of these up front costs are completed.”

Consultant Hamilton Simons-Jones agreed with the 1,000 seat estimate, despite fall projections that the tax would fund 1,500 seats. 

“The OPSB funding doesn’t take away from these funds and is part of the portion of the funds that were always being proposed for capacity building to scale the early childhood education seats in New Orleans,” he wrote in an email. 

“The $1,500 per student funds to NOLA-PS/OPSB would help cover the costs for them to increase staffing and capacity for the early childhood coordinated enrollment, verification and matching process as well as family outreach and navigation supports to help families through the coordinated early childhood enrollment process,” he wrote. 

A substantial increase to NOLA Public Schools enrollment budget

Because eligibility for these early childhood programs is often income-based, advocates say they can require a lot of paperwork, including ensuring children remain eligible while enrolled. Early childhood programs are also likely the first time a child is entering the system, requiring more paperwork than, for example, a child who is already enrolled in elementary school and simply moving up a grade. 

Children apply to and are assigned to early childhood seats through NOLA-PS’s Common Application Process (NCAP) lottery process, formerly known as OneApp. The district ensures children are eligible for the spots, including age, residency and, for certain programs, income verification.

The agreement requires the school district to “provide” three full-time employees, or equivalent staffing, to assist families in the enrollment process and assure they are eligible for the program. 

The money from the tax would help the district “design and implement an annual coordinated enrollment process and an associated informational campaign,” according to a school board vote taken in February. “It will also provide funds to identify families and work directly with these families to determine their eligibility for early childhood seats and support them through the application process.”

The $1.5 million to support enrollment for 1,000 students appears to be a substantial increase from past budgets for enrollment services it already handles for more than 45,000 students. The district’s current budget for enrollment is $262,299, but it’s not clear if that represents the total cost of running the enrollment system. There is a separate $695,792 line item for “data systems and solutions,” which may include enrollment software. 

The line items appear within the Portfolio and Accountability department, which has an overall budget of $6.2 million. However, most of that — $4.5 million — is directed toward accountability — vetting charter school applications and monitoring schools for compliance with state law and local policy — rather than enrollment. 

In 2019, the year the district took over citywide enrollment services from the state Recovery School District — and before enrollment and accountability were folded into the same department — the “enrollment and student access” office had a budget of $2.4 million.

NOLA Public Schools officials did not respond to repeated requests for information on the enrollment office’s current budget or how many employees they think they may need to add to handle the additional early childhood seats. 

According to the CEA, the district must “dedicate” three full-time employees, or equivalent staffing, to support families through the early childhood application process. 

In the fall, when the proposed millage was introduced, Agenda for Children CEO Jen Roberts said that the funding was intended to include additional support for families, such as counselors and caseworkers.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Caitlin Berni as a spokesperson for Agenda for Children. Berni was actually speaking on behalf of the Yes for NOLA Kids campaign. (March 24, 2022)

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...