In The News › Business, nonprofit leaders voice concerns about New Orleans schools master plan

Aug 2, 2011

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues, Schools

Business, nonprofit leaders voice concerns about New Orleans schools master plan

Tuesday, August 02, 2011
By Andrew Vanacore
The Times-Picayune

A group of New Orleans business and nonprofit leaders is calling for city and state education officials to head “back to the drawing board” on plans for spending what’s left of about $2 billion in federal aid earmarked for rebuilding the city’s public schools.

In a public letter dated July 29, the group argues that the remaining cash should be enough to put all public school students in new or renovated facilities, even if it means cutting out some of the architectural luxuries that have distinguished early phases of the post-Katrina rebuilding.

The existing master plan leaves some $422 million in unfinanced renovations without proposing any specifics for coming up with the money for them.

Nor, as the letter points out, does the plan address what will happen to some of the obsolete school buildings that house students now, or spell out exactly how the school system will pay for upkeep, an important question in a city where many school buildings had fallen into serious disrepair even before the 2005 storm.

The letter is signed by groups ranging from the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce to the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane.

“Every child, and every school, deserves a decent facility,’‘ the letter reads. “Using available funds, New Orleans has a unique and realistic opportunity to rebuild its entire school facilities network — not just some of it.”

Officials involved in revising the master plan noted Monday that they are just wrapping up several weeks of community input on the latest changes, so nothing is final. John White, who heads the state-run Recovery School District, said a new set of revisions should be ready in the next six weeks.

“Their position is that we should try to impact as many students as possible with this money, and we agree with that,” White said. “We’re going to take a hard look at this plan.”

The main complaint that has cropped up since officials at the RSD unveiled the latest master plan revisions last month is that the new blueprint includes an entire third phase of construction without any revenue sources. And some schools are left out of the plans entirely.

The letter notes that only 54 construction and renovation projects are paid for in the plan. An additional 19 schools included in the third phase have no cash attached to them, meaning taxpayers would likely have to approve a bond issue — and a tax increase — to pay for the work.

“Given the amount of funding available from federal sources for construction, it is astonishing that full execution of the plan depends on a major bond issue and tax levy,” the letter says.

Using 2020 enrollment projections, it estimates that a remaining $1.6 billion in construction money amounts to about $33,000 per student, more than enough given a national report published this year showing a median construction cost of $30,833 per pupil for high schools and $25,500 for elementary schools.

However, it’s not clear whether the RSD really has that much left to spend. The district’s public guide to the master plan lists a total of about $1.4 billion available for the first two phases of construction. And presumably some of that total has already been spent, since the first phase is already under way.

Whatever the case, the letter argues that spending beyond what is already available in federal aid would be “unwise,” considering the city will also need to find money for maintenance and “serious unmet educational needs.”

RSD officials, including White, have made the case that their existing plans would leave every student in the city with an adequate building.

The district estimates that the first two phases of the plan would cover buildings that could house more than 80 percent of the city’s students, with the rest in buildings that are less than ideal but at least suitable for delivering a good education.

Aug 2, 2011

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues, Schools

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