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Critics Say Millage Vote Is About Power, Not School Maintenance

Mallory Falk

This weekend New Orleans voters decide whether to extend and redirect a property tax to fund school maintenance. The measure seems simple: set aside money so schools don't fall into disrepair. But the millage vote reflects a power struggle in New Orleans schools.

Last month, a banner started appearing outside schools. It features a racially diverse group of kids, with crisp jeans and wide smiles. Each gives a big thumbs up. The accompanying text: Our children, our schools. Not a tax increase. Vote December 6.

Depending who you ask, those banners either inform the public about a ballot measure to fund school maintenance — or they endorse it. And that measure is either a straightforward way to keep schools in good condition — or a more complicated move, with additional motives.

The proposition seems simple enough. After Katrina, FEMA pledged $1.8 billion to rebuild New Orleans schools. But that funding doesn't cover long-term repairs.

Ken Ducote is the former facility planning director for the Orleans Parish School Board. “What my fears are is that we'll go back to the old situation where we'll have some schools without boilers or without air conditioning units because they go down,” he says. "You'll still have children using restrooms with rusted fixtures.”

Ducote saw firsthand what happens when money isn't set aside for maintenance“We had buildings that, in many cases, it was a struggle just to keep them open. We kept our fingers crossed every winter that we'd have a real bad freeze, and that some of the school heating systems could not take it.”

"If you have an entity [like the Recovery School District] that you didn't invite in and it refuses to leave, it creates a problem," a community group opposing the proposed millage redirection says. "They just keep finding other ways and other opportunities to stay in the community."

The measure would extend an existing property tax and redirect the revenue — about $15 million — to school building maintenance. Ducote says the measure ensures that the many freshly renovated and newly built schools won't fall into disrepair. Groups like the New Orleans Business Council and the Urban League agree.

But critics say the measure ensures something else: that the Recovery School District isn't going away anytime soon.

Shawon Bernard is a member of Justice and Beyond, one of the groups opposing the measure.

“There's great agreement, I don't think anybody does not agree, that we need to make sure that we maintain the schools,” she says. “But I don't think all of the information that's necessary to make an informed decision has been shared with the general population.”

The Recovery School District was created as a temporary agency. It took over the majority of public schools after Katrina. Now it oversees the charter operators running most city schools. Before massive school reform, facilities and maintenance issues were clear: the school board owned and was responsible for maintaining buildings. But the ballot measure would direct most maintenance funding to the RSD.

“I think it's important that voters understand that it's not OPSB necessarily managing or being responsible for these funds,” Bernard says. “And if there's gonna be another entity that's sharing those funds, I think it's important for the public to know that up front and not find out on the back end."

Important, she says, because RSD officials are not democratically elected. So if taxpayers aren't happy with the way funds are spent, they have less power to make changes.

Bernard's group would like to see the RSD eventually dissolve and more authority returned to the school board. But if the measure passes, Bernard says, RSD could have a foothold in Orleans Parish for another decade.

“If you have an entity that you didn't invite in and it refuses to leave, it creates a problem,” Bernard says. “They just keep finding other ways and other opportunities to stay in the community.”

Saturday's vote is part of a bigger piece of legislation about school facilities that passed this year, Act 543. That law creates separate facilities funds for the state-run Recovery School District and local school boards. Orleans Parish is the most affected by far.

Deirdre Johnson Burel is Executive Director of the Orleans Public Education Network. She wants to take that law back to the drawing board.

“I don't think two offices are an efficient use of resources,” she says. “I do believe that there should be one authority. That that expertise should be housed under the democratically-elected Orleans Parish School Board.”

But unlike Bernard, who says change the law first and then put the measure back on the ballot, Johnson Burel says vote yes now.

“We felt it important to support the millage in the now, and do the work in the next legislative session and beyond to address the policy issues.”

Ken Ducote, the former facilities director, worries what a no vote could mean.

“Ten years from now, the message that the students will get if their building's having problems is not that 'Oh we sent a message to the RSD about governance.' No. It'll be: 'People must not care about me because they're letting me go to school in a building that's run down,'” he says.

Those school buildings no longer display banners about the issue. A judge had them removed. So when voters cast their ballots this weekend, they won’t see those images of smiling children.

This story has been revised to reflect the following clarification: The statement about the RSD maintaining a presence in New Orleans has now been properly attributed. Under Act 543, facilities money would follow schools if they transferred from RSD to OPSB control.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries and Entergy Corporation.