In The News › Game Plan for Building N.O. Schools Questioned

Oct 16, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

Game Plan for Building N.O. Schools Questioned

Game plan for building N.O. schools questioned
Early stages said to be lacking in detail; latter stages, in money
Thursday, October 16, 2008
By Sarah Carr
Staff writer

Two independent groups on Wednesday raised red flags about the long-term financing behind the city’s ambitious and unprecedented school construction plan.

At a meeting of the state school board, the groups also probed school officials for more details about the costs of individual projects. Representatives of Tulane University’s Cowen Institute and the Bureau of Governmental Research argued that if money is not found for later phases of the plan — a likely scenario, they say — it would exacerbate inequities in children’s access to quality school programs and buildings. Specifically, they said, it would lead to a situation where some students attend school in state-of-the-art buildings while others remain indefinitely in decrepit, outdated buildings.

“We probably will not be able to fund the final phases of this plan,” said Tara O’Neill, policy analyst with Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. She said that means the plan “will lead to greater disparity between facilities.”

The six-phase school construction and renovation plan will cost about $2 billion. New Orleans officials have at least $685 million in financing available for the first phase. That leaves up to $1.3 billion unfinanced, although school officials have said they will likely be able to pull together at least another couple hundred million dollars for future phases.

Recovery School District officials called it standard practice in long-term capital planning to begin projects before all of the money for the entire plan has been identified or earmarked. They said delays would only increase costs.

“At some point we have got to start building,” Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas said.

Karen Burke, the district’s deputy superintendent for operations, said, “If you want to discuss equity, we have equity right now: Most of our buildings are bad.”

Cowen Institute and BGR officials said they don’t want the plan delayed, but seek more details about the cost of specific building projects. They note that the plan breaks down costs by phase, but not by specific projects.

“Before we really move forward, someone has to have a clear understanding of what the numbers really are,” said Janet Howard, BGR president.

—- Per-student costs —-

The master plan calls for paying nearly twice as much per student on a building project than the national average, according to Cowen Institute research.

That research shows that the national average of the cost of new schools currently under construction is $24,200 per student, compared with an average cost of $42,000 per student in the master plan.

Recovery School District officials called the comparison unfair and misleading. They said the figures do not take into account the considerable cost of building elevated schools that can withstand hurricane-force winds or the relative cost of building projects in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Burke said the school buildings in New Orleans all have to be set on pilings and raised above the ground, and will have windows that can withstand 125-mph winds.

“All that is done so that if there is a hurricane, the buildings won’t be totally destroyed,” she said.

Ramsey Green, the director of capital projects for the district, added that the master-plan projections include the cost of furniture and technology equipment for the schools, while national averages do not.

“We’re not building Cadillacs,” he said.

Burke added: “If they think they have a way to pull (costs) down further, then you can bet your boots we are going to do it.”

—- Comparing averages —-

O’Neill of the Cowen Institute said she considers the national averages a “nice benchmark to begin to look at” cost issues in more detail. She pointed out that while the New Orleans figures might include costs not applicable in other parts of the country, other regions might have their own unusual expenses — such as protecting buildings against earthquakes in California.

Cowen officials said they do not want to disrupt the timeline of the master plan. But they asked the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to review the costs of individual construction and renovation projects, and compare them with national and regional averages, before signing off.

“We want all this information unpacked a little more,” said O’Neill. “How much are we spending per school, and what are we getting for that money?”

Howard said that while federal money will pay for the first phase, she is fairly confident that later phases would have to be financed with local tax money.

The prospect that New Orleans taxpayers would be able to afford spending more than $1 billion on later phases — along with other major infrastructure needs in the city — is “dim,” she said.

The first phase of the master plan calls for the new construction or renovation of 28 schools in the next few years. In total, the blueprint proposes 67 elementary school campuses and 17 high school campuses. Further, 52 campuses — some vacant, some occupied — will be “landbanked,” meaning they could be redeveloped for community use, sold to build housing, demolished or retained for future public use.

The public comment period for the plan ends Friday. The Orleans Parish School Board plans to vote on the plan Nov. 6, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education expects to vote in December.

. . . . . . .

Sarah Carr can be reached at scarr@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3497

Oct 16, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

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