As NOLA-PS faces unsustainable budget, officials eye changes to state law
New Orleans Public Schools’ central office budget isn’t sustainable, officials said Thursday during a public hearing on the district’s proposed general fund and special revenue budgets for the coming school year.
“Fiscal cliff sounds dramatic, but we’re definitely standing in the shade of a tree that won’t be there in a couple of years,” the district’s chief financial officer Stuart Gay said.
There are already multiple funds where projected expenses exceeds revenue, Gay said, adding that as time goes on, the situation is expected to get worse, not better. Officials expressed a sense of urgency this week in fixing the matter.
During Tuesday’s board business meeting, Gay said the district’s property insurance bill could jump nearly 50% next year. District operations officer Tiffany Delcour also warned that the district does not have enough money to care for all of its aging facilities.
Much of Thursday’s discussion focused on how the district’s finances are constrained by Louisiana charter school law. Under state law, state and local dollars flow through the district for charters to spend directly.
The district’s central office doesn’t receive its own allocation, but instead charges each school an authorizing fee, which in Louisiana is capped at 2% of the school’s funding through the state’s minimum foundation program.
New Orleans Public Schools uses the money from the fee, and other funding streams including local millages, to pay for services it’s required to provide under federal and state law, as well as additional programs it has agreed to run directly.
Compared to other states, Louisiana reserves a smaller percentage of funds for authorizers. In many states, authorizer fees are capped at 4% or 5%.
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., who attended his final board meeting as the district’s leader on Thursday, said while a 2% authorizing fee may work in a more traditional system with just a few charter schools, the law wasn’t written with New Orleans’ all-charter system in mind.
“We have to go back to the very beginning to when charter law was written, but then also see where we are today, where we have a completely decentralized district which actually sets up a different conversation,” Lewis said.
With Lewis’ departure imminent, it will be up to his successor Avis Williams, the first woman to permanently lead the city’s schools, and the board to address funding challenges and solutions which could include attempting to change state law.
Board member Ethan Ashley said Thursday that now is the time to take the issue up on raising the authorizing fee while the state is temporarily buoyed by pandemic relief from the federal government.
Board member Carlos Zervigon thanked Ashley for bringing the issue up publicly, adding it's a topic he discusses in private frequently.
“I’d say the blunt truth is that it isn’t sustainable and it hasn’t been sustainable,” Zervigon said.
He said going forward the district will need to have tough conversations with the city and its schools about the services the district currently provides and whether it can afford them.
Contract amended for trauma-informed practices provider
During Thursday’s board meeting, the district approved nearly 20 items, including an amendment to its contract with Akoben, its trauma-informed practice provider.
Most New Orleans public school students had experienced significant trauma, including the murder of a close family member or friend or exposure to domestic abuse, according to a survey conducted before the pandemic.
Trauma-informed learning is rooted in responding to trauma first to make sure students feel safe enough to learn.
The amendment renews Akoben’s contract for another year and increases its amount by $75,00 for a total of $300,000. Akoben was contracted to train 25 school-based staff annually, but ended up training 62 school-based staff and has trained 81 school-based staff so far this year, according to board documents.
“This demonstrates both a clear demand for the program as well as Akoben’s ability to meet and exceed their contractual obligations,” according to a written recommendation submitted by Gay.
Under the amended contract, Akoben will also provide ongoing support to at least 25 schools and participants on an annual basis on trauma-informed professional development including student crisis prevention and response.
In addition to its work with Akoben, the district also provides schools with trauma-informed learning support through a partnership with Tulane University.
Ashley acknowledged the toll of recent gun violence on New Orleans’ public school community at Tuesday’s board meeting. He said the hardest part of being a board member is the fact that many meetings this year have started with a moment of silence. At least a dozen public school students died from gun violence in New Orleans this past school year.
This year’s graduation season has been marred by violence. A large fight at George Washington Carver High School’s graduation led to the arrest of a 23-year-old man for illegal possession of a firearm. A few weeks later, a graduate’s grandmother was killed and two other people were injured while people were gathered in the parking lot of Xavier University’s convocation center following Morris Jeff Community School’s graduation.
“It’s too much,” Ashley said. “I know we’re probably really somber and we’re trying to push through here, but there’s been a lot that’s been happening in our district and in districts around the country.”
Ashley said the district will continue to prioritize the mental health of students, staff and families through trauma-informed practices and other supports.
“We just want to say thank you and continue to uplift it and talk and normalize it in a way that it will start to combat the silence that we take,” he said.