In The News › Editorial: Seeking details on school plan

Oct 19, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

Editorial: Seeking details on school plan

EDITORIAL: Seeking details on school plan
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Recovery School District officials say they don’t need to have financing in place for their entire 20-year school construction program to start replacing aging and flood-damaged buildings.

They have $685 million in recovery money, enough, they say, to launch the first phase of the $2 billion, six-phase master plan.

But the Bureau of Governmental Research and Tulane University’s Cowen Institute are raising questions — and not just about the plan’s long-term financing.

The groups want more details on the cost of specific projects. And they think that information is needed before the plan is voted on by the Orleans Parish School Board next month and by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in December.

That’s a reasonable request. The Recovery School District should provide the kind of financial details that will allow local and state officials to make informed decisions.

The master plan looks at the cost by phase, not by specific projects. The Cowen Institute says that the plan calls for spending $42,0000 per student — nearly twice as much as the national average of $24,200.

Recovery District officials say that’s a flawed comparison. Their cost estimates cover furniture and technology — something that’s not included in the national averages. The schools that will be built here will be raised above the ground and with wind-resistant windows to withstand hurricanes.

Those arguments are really beside the point, however. Local and state officials who will be voting on the plan still need to have a clear understanding of the costs. Comparing the plan’s cost to regional and national averages is only one analysis that should be done. They also need to know how much is being spent per school and what that money will provide.

New Orleans residents have questions, too. Under the master plan, which was unveiled in August, 52 of the system’s 125 schools will be landbanked — either sold, demolished or redeveloped for another use. The plan doesn’t explain where the student bodies of those schools will go, although officials have said that high-performing schools with healthy enrollments would be kept together.

Making sure that children have decent facilities is certainly the most important consideration. And the Recovery District sought public input through meetings and a public comment period that ended Friday. But school officials need to be aware that uncertainties make New Orleans families uneasy, and they need to make sure that the schools that they’ve chosen for landbanking make sense.

School officials have said that they’ll continue to review the system’s demographics every year or so. That’s reassuring since this plan is unfolding over two decades.

A much harder question is how to pay for the rest of the plan. The remaining phases make up more than $1 billion, and while local school officials have said that they expect to get another $100 million in federal recovery money for the $400 million second phase, that’s far short of what’s needed for the entire plan.

The prospect of getting the money from local taxes, especially given the other demands on a recovering city, is something that BGR President Janet Howard called “dim.”

But that isn’t an argument for delay. Recovery School District officials rightly point out that construction costs will only increase. The first phase calls for 28 schools to be renovated or built in the next five years. That’s an important start in replacing schools that were aging and decrepit even before the floodwaters rose.

School officials say that 77 percent of campuses are in poor or very poor condition, and the average building is 75 years old. That makes it hard to replace a toilet, never mind providing adequate Internet access.

The Cowen Institute raised concerns that the master plan could lead to greater inequities in the future if later phases aren’t built. But Karen Burke, deputy superintendent for operations, points out that most of the buildings now are bad. “If you want to discuss equity, we have equity right now,” she said.

Obviously that’s not an acceptable situation, and there should be a sense of urgency in launching the first phase, which will provide classrooms for the 7,000 students now in modular buildings and those being bused to schools in other parts of the city.

Neither the BGR nor the Cowen Institute are asking for a delay, however. They’re simply asking for more information, and that’s something school officials should be willing and able to provide.

Oct 19, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

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