NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board passed a $555 million budget at its monthly meeting Thursday night, months ahead of prior years’ approvals. 

The vast majority of that money flows through the NOLA Public Schools district to charter schools on a per-pupil basis. The central office has a $35 million general operating fund. 

An approved budget isn’t due to the state until the end of September but board members and district staff made a point of passing it early this year. 

District Chief Financial Officer Stuart Gay gave a brief overview of the budget to board members during a public heraing preceding the monthly meeting. 

Gay reported “a very positive increase in sales tax collection over the last couple months.” Collections suffered during the pandemic, when residents were staying home and fewer tourists visited the city, but he said they have rebounded well in the last couple months, with over $14.8 million received in April and more than $15 million for the month of May. 

The district’s annual budget is padded a bit this year with the help of federal pandemic relief funding that came in the form of several grants. 

Gay said the district has 13 grants related to federal pandemic funding — the first of which will expire this fall while some are available to use through 2024. 

A Decentralized District

Though the district passes the majority of the money it receives onto schools, it holds two percent of that funding for oversight costs, like accountability and facilities management among other things. The district calls the holdback an authorizer fee. 

Board member Ethan Ashley asked whether that amount of money was sustainable to maintain district operations.

“The increases in insurance — all of that stuff — it doesn’t seem like we’re in the place we need to be,” he said, referring to an announcement, earlier this week, that the district’s property insurance costs are set to increase by 50 percent

Ashley also noted the district has at times had to step in to take over failing charter schools

“You’re doing startup and close down in the same year and it’s tremendously expensive,” Gay said. 

Board member Katie Baudouin shared the same concerns as Ashley. 

“What supports and services are we providing to schools that everyone might not be aware of and how much does that cost?” she questioned. 

Board member Carlos Zervigon, who previously served on charter school boards, said he also has looked at the authorizer fee from the charter perspective. As a charter board member, schools were looking and hoping to receive the most dollars possible. 

But now as an elected board member, Zervigon said the central office’s role, even in an all-charter district, is likely greater than the public realizes. For example, the district has to coordinate special education services for students in nonpublic schools who request them. He also challenged district staffers to help explain what the district provides for charter schools in addition to seeking out what the community would like to see the district do for schools. 

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. had similar thoughts. 

“When we talk about school support and improvement, what does that actually mean?” he said, noting members of the public have called for the district to support struggling charter schools rather than abruptly shutting them down. 

“When charter laws were written, no one intended a completely decentralized district,” Lewis said. “This sets up a different conversation.”

Gay again noted the federal funding would help the district over the next couple years.

“We’re certainly standing in the shade of a tree that won’t be there in the future,” he said. 

Board member Ashley also said this was the first time since the mid-2000’s the district’s budget allotted some money to paying out settlements. It’s unclear which settlements will be paid out, but a judgment for students who attended Moton Elementary School at Gordon Plaza atop a former landfill is among many that have stacked up over the years. 

Ashley said the specific settlements would be discussed at the July 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...