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Tax revenue enters the spotlight for Orleans Parish School Board, inspector general

By Danielle Dreilinger

The Times-Picayune

July 15, 2013

The Orleans Parish School Board is moving to set the 2014 property tax rate for public education in New Orleans even as Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux prepares to sue the board to investigate how it is using and distributing that money. The agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting would keep the rate at the maximum 40.34 mills, the same as 2013.

Although the state took over control of most of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina, the School Board remains the entity that sets the millages, within a voter-approved maximum, and distributes the money to all the schools. The state Recovery School District was not given the authority to tax.

Orleans Parish is required to report new parish-wide, overall property valuation figures every four years. At that point, if the total value has gone up, the state Constitution requires that the School Board “roll back” the millage so that the actual amount of money collected remains unchanged. The School Board may then “roll forward” up to the maximum to collect more money.

This is not the quadrennial year. However, Orleans does revalue one quarter of properties every year, as part of a plan to spread the workload when the city reduced the number of assessors from seven to one in 2011.

Assuming that property values go up next year, that means the schools will see an increase in local tax revenue in 2014. The amount of the windfall won’t be known until the assessor’s office reports valuation changes in the fall. The 2013 property tax budget for New Orleans schools came out to $124.6 million.

It’s that money that Quatrevaux said he is keen to examine.

Monday was the deadline for the School Board to respond to the inspector general office’s subpoena for a long list of financial documents for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2011, and 2012, including check registers, records of employee overtime, payroll and fixed asset maintenance expenses. Quatrevaux’s office said the School Board did not respond in any way.

Board members and school system staff have said the inspector general doesn’t have jurisdiction to perform an audit. Still, interim schools Superintendent Stan Smith said the system’s legal staff tried to reach Quatrevaux’s staff Monday to determine a way forward but was unable to connect.

The Bureau of Governmental Research published a report this spring criticizing the School Board’s accounting of money it manages for the Recovery School District. Quatrevaux said he had read the report but was not familiar enough with it to comment on differences between it and what his office intends to do.

In a briefing for reporters, Quatrevaux was alternatingly low-key and alarmist about the need for oversight. The School Board “has a record of corruption at the highest levels, and we want to go back in there and test for all the fraud schemes the FBI found in the early 2000s,” he said. Later, he said, “It’s a routine audit.”

Quatrevaux’s office now plans to sue in Civil District Court to enforce the subpoena.

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