In The News › ‘Yes’ to New Orleans school maintenance tax proposition: Editorial

‘Yes’ to New Orleans school maintenance tax proposition: Editorial

By NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

November 15, 2014

The NOLA.com | Times-Picayune editorial board makes the following recommendation for the Dec. 6 ballot.

ORLEANS PARISH

SCHOOL MAINTENANCE TAX PROPOSITION

To levy 4.97 mills of property tax for the preservation, improvement and capital repairs of public school facilities, minus the millage needed to repay outstanding bonds.

Yes

After Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches in 2005, the federal government agreed to invest $1.8 billion for rebuilding schools in New Orleans. As of July, 11 new schools were open and seven others had been renovated. From Lakeview to Gentilly to Algiers to eastern New Orleans, students are in new classrooms. In the Lower 9th Ward, a new high school is under way. By 2017, every student is supposed to be in a new or renovated school.

The focus so far has been on stretching the funding from FEMA to cover all that construction. But the long-term maintenance of the city’s campuses is a significant concern.

Before the flood, many schools in New Orleans were old and in deplorable shape because of years of deferred maintenance. There was no dedicated stream of revenue for repairs.

It would be a terrible waste to allow that to happen again with the schools being built or refurbished post-Katrina.

A property tax proposition on the Dec. 6 ballot provides a sound solution to the problem of how to pay for maintenance of New Orleans’ public school buildings long-term. If voters approve, a 4.97 mill tax being collected to pay off construction bond debt would be replaced gradually with a 10-year tax of the same amount for maintenance. The amount of the millage needed for debt service would be subtracted each year, with the remainder going toward repairs and upkeep of the buildings.

The revenues for maintenance would be modest at first but would rise to an estimated $14.8 million per year after the bonds are paid off in 2021, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Governmental Research. In addition, the Legislature approved using an estimated $13 million per year existing sales taxes dedicated to schools for the maintenance fund. The sales tax can be used for repairs without going on the ballot.

If the new property tax millage is approved, there would be no increase in what property owners pay — although without the restructuring they would see their taxes go down as the existing debt dwindles.

The money would be divided among all the city’s schools according to a formula in the legislation that creates the maintenance fund. Individual schools would have some control over how to use their share.

This proposal is a sensible way to ensure that the gleaming schools thousands of New Orleans children are attending now won’t decay badly over time. There was no such plan in the past, and many students had to try to learn in awful settings. That isn’t acceptable.

There is a broad range of support for the tax initiative: BGR, the Urban League, Stand for Children, Black Alliance for Educational Options, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and other business and education groups.

When the Orleans Parish School Board in September voted on the tax revisions, opponents expressed concerns about how the money would be parceled out. Some people at the meeting, including some board members, were unhappy that the state Recovery School District would share in the resources.

But thousands of New Orleans children are attending schools under the RSD umbrella, and they deserve the benefit of this money. How long RSD will have a role in city schools and when more schools might return to the School Board’s control are separate questions from this tax proposition.

Flozell Daniels, representing the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, cut to the essence of the issue: What is best for children. It would have been “pure negligence” for the School Board to vote against the proposal, he said. “I want my tax dollars to go where my children and my community can directly benefit.”

Former Orleans Parish school facilities manager Ken Ducote showed the board a list of 34 reports and films from the early 1990s on the terrible condition of city schools.

Surely no New Orleanian wants the city’s public school buildings to ever get to that point again.

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