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New Orleans’ City Council took Harrah’s funds away from NOLA-PS; the district wants them back

Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.
Aubri Juhasz
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward on Nov. 13, 2020.

New Orleans Public Schools plan to ask the city’s newly seated City Council to rescind a resolution restricting the district's ability to access money from the Harrah's Casino Fund, officials told board members Tuesday.

For nearly two decades millions of dollars have been distributed annually from the fund to New Orleans Public Schools as part of the casino’s lease agreement with the city.

But over the last few years, the money has been increasingly in jeopardy due to the City Council’s decision to prioritize early education instead.

The district typically uses Harrah’s money to fund specialized programs for students who are incarcerated or have significant special needs, and last year, only received half of its $3 million request.

“The disruption of Harrah’s dollars has been felt across the board,” Justin McCorkle, the district’s director of community relations, said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

McCorkle described the loss in funding, which the district has tried to make up for elsewhere, as devastating for students and families served by three programs: the Center for Resilience, Travis Hill Schools and the district’s Office of Student Support and Attendance.

“We have had to sacrifice vital programming in order to maintain these programs … when we should be expanding the reach of this work when our community needs it the most,” he said.

Liz Marcell Williams, with the Center for Resilience, and Byron Goodwin, with Travis Hill Schools, spoke in support of the district’s plan and stressed the importance of the Harrah’s funding.

Williams said depending on the program’s enrollment, which has a cap of 45 students, the money received from the Harrah’s fund constitutes between 25% and 40% of its operating budget.

Now that a newly elected City Council is in place, McCorkle said the district hopes to establish a better working relationship and request that the prior funding model be reinstated.

At Tuesday’s meeting, McCorkle provided a timeline of events through this month when the Council unanimously approved an amendment further reducing the district’s power by adding the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families to the Harrah’s distribution process.

McCorkle said the district believes it should have sole jurisdiction over the money and will ask the Council to take several steps to restore its authority and allocate outstanding money.

Board president Ethan Ashley said he strongly supports the district’s plan to challenge the Council’s actions.

“I just want to acknowledge you’re being way too kind about what happened,” Ashley said to McCorkle. “They made a decision without us, about us. I know in this city that happens way too often, but that shouldn’t be the case. I would never expect another agency to pull away critical funds in the middle of a crisis, and they didn’t even allocate the money — they’re just sitting on it.”

McCorkle said the district is already in the process of trying to build a better working relationship with the new City Council and is scheduling one-on-one meetings with each member.

Board member Olin Parker described the decision to take funding from the city’s K-12 system to fund early education as robbing “Peter to pay Paul.” Over the last year, education advocates have argued the city’s funding approach has forced longtime allies to compete against one another.

Board member Nolan Marshall said he thinks the board’s new Innovation and Stability Committee, which was created based on a July resolution, will also help address issues with the Harrah’s fund and other funding issues.

The committee will be responsible for researching and developing ideas into “actionable proposals for programming,” a press release said. Proposals will then be evaluated before they are sent to the full board for agreement and eventually implementation.

Marshall will chair the committee, board members Parker and Carlos Zervigon will serve as members and board president Ashley will serve as an ex-officio member. The special committee will also include people outside the district including government and community leaders.

“We want everyone with a vested interest in the success of NOLA Public Schools to come to the table, work together and bring to bear innovative ideas to lift up our students,” Marshall said in a statement. “We will connect the dots, we will stay on the same page and we move with a sense of urgency.”

The committee is currently in the process of determining its full membership and will hopefully start meeting in the spring, Marshall said. Board members held their first meeting on Jan. 13.

When discussing the Harrah’s fund, board members acknowledged the need for other streams of early education funding, and voiced support for the city’s upcoming millage proposal.

Hamilton Simons-Jones with the campaign Yes for NOLA Kids said the proposed 5 mills would create an additional 1,000 early childhood education seats, which the state is then expected to match, resulting in a total of 2,000 seats.

The measure, which will be on April’s ballot, won’t increase overall taxes, due to “recent expirations and rollbacks,” Simons-Jones said.

Board members agreed with Simons-Jones’ assertions that more funding for early education could eventually transform the city.

“We know that children that have access to quality early care are less likely to require special education services, be retained a grade level, drop out of high school, develop a chronic disease in adulthood and be engaged in the criminal justice system,” Simons-Jones said.

Board member Zervigon said the millage would also reduce strain on the city’s K-12 system since many schools already provide early education programs at their own expense.

“Schools are stretching K-12 funding. We can’t expect our schools to do this forever,” Zervigon said.

Bill Hammack with the Link Restaurant Group attended Tuesday's meeting to present the millage along with Simons-Jones and the CEO of Kingsley House Keith Liederman. CEO of Agenda for Children Jennifer Roberts submitted a statement of support, which Liederman read, but was unable to attend.

Hammack said the millage also appeals to the city’s business community since lack of childcare often forces parents to miss work, turn down promotions and even quit their jobs, he said.

“This is just smart economics,” Hammock said. “We’ve worked so hard to get this on the ballot, a stream of revenue that we can count on year after year.”

The district had planned to discuss enrollment trends and downsizing plans at Tuesday's meeting, but announced earlier in the day that it would push the item to the following month due to the omicron surge since the presenter does not live locally.

Public school enrollment has trended downward in recent years and shows no signs of recovering, officials said at December's meeting. Charters with low enrollment have been encouraged to condense since then, and two schools have already agreed to close at the end of the school year.

The district’s superintendent search process is ongoing and its search firm, Greenwood Asher & Associates, held eight online community listening sessions last week.

Attendance at the meetings was low, The Lens reported, with just 25 public attendees.

Board member J.C. Wagner Romero questioned the accessibility of the meetings and said he entered the virtual waiting room for one of the meetings, but was never admitted to the main room.

The meetings were supposed to be held in-person, but were moved online due to the omicron variant, officials said.

Greenwood Asher & Associates and the district’s communications firm, the Spears Group, said they were unaware of the problems and plan to improve the process. Because of low attendance, more online listening sessions are in the process of being scheduled.

Board member Zervigon said he attended four of the meetings and that almost all of the public attendees were educators.

“It feels like nobody heard about the meetings,” he said.

Upcoming meetings will be listed here, and an online comment form can be accessed here.

Actionable items discussed during Tuesday's committee meetings will be brought to a full board vote at Thursday's meeting.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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