In The News › New Orleans business, civic groups say school master plan should go ‘back to drawing board’

New Orleans business, civic groups say school master plan should go ‘back to drawing board’

Monday, August 1, 2011
By Richard A. Webster
The Newsroom, CityBusiness Blog

Live within your means.

That’s the message sent to school officials from a coalition of seven civic and business groups.

Specifically, they say the $2.1 billion in federal recovery dollars that has been made available for rebuilding the public school system is more than enough. Proposed plans to use a major bond issue and tax levy to raise an additional $422 million are, according to the letter writers, “astonishing” and “unwise, since there is currently no funding source for maintenance and serious unmet educational needs.”

The Orleans Parish School Board and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are scheduled to vote on amendments to the School Facilities Master Plan by October. The vote originally was scheduled for this month, but Recovery School District Superintendent John White said the school supervisory panels need more time.

BESE oversees the RSD, the state entity that has taken control of numerous poor performing schools in New Orleans.

Three years ago, the RSD and the school board released a 10-year master plan that called for building or renovating 87 schools at a cost of $2 billion. The school systems received that amount from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in addition to another $137 million in Community Development Block Grants.

About one-quarter of that $2.1 billion was used for immediate needs after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, leaving $1.6 billion. That’s more than enough to build new schools and renovate old ones as needed, according to a letter the coalition sent this morning to White, OPSB Superintendent Darryl Kilbert and acting state education chief Ollie Tyler.

The first two phases of the amended master plan call for the $1.6 billion to go toward the renovation or construction of only 54 school facilities. Phase III requires a bond issue to raise $422 million for work on 19 other buildings.

According to the coalition that wants the plan revisited, the new plan requires not only requires additional money, but it only addresses the needs of 73 facilities, 14 short of what the original master plan contained.

“The amended plan would create gross inequity in the quality of school facilities across the city. Some school facilities would be built at a cost that far exceeds national norms. Others would get nothing, even where repairs are urgently needed,” states the letter signed representatives of the Bureau for Governmental Research, the Business Council of New Orleans, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, Common Good and the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.

“With more than $1.6 billion to address the city’s public schools facility needs, it is unacceptable that the amended plan would not place all students in reasonable facilities that provide a good educational environment,” the letter reads.

White said the process of amending the original master plan continues, and those crafting the changes “will try to get efficiencies that allow us to serve more kids, which may mean we don’t have to have that entire $422 million chunk.”

The coalition makes several recommendations:

– reduce the square footage per student
– standardize mechanical and electrical systems
– focus more on energy efficiency and structural sustainability, rather than meeting the requirements of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
– reduce the scope of renovations and focus first on stabilizing the fundamentals such as roofs, foundations, plumbing, electrical and health and safety concerns.

The amended master plan, according to the group, must clearly indicate how many schools it expects to house, should be cost-effective and appoint a task force to develop a funding program for future maintenance and capital repair needs.

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