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Planning Ahead

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New Orleans' future, like that of all American cities, is tied directly to the quality of its public school system. Just as Category 5 protection is vital for safeguarding the lives of our citizens, world-class public education is the surest way to improve our economy and quality of life — and to encourage others to live and work here.

The 2005 levee failures didn't cause the demise of New Orleans' public school system — it had been dying for decades — but the flood did destroy many individual schools. As tragic as the levee failures were, they also presented us with a unique opportunity to start over, to rebuild stronger and smarter. This is true across the board, whether we're talking about public parks, public streets, public buildings or public schools. Just as citizens demanded a neighborhood-driven master plan for the city's overall recovery, the people who live in New Orleans' 74 distinctive neighborhoods now demand a carefully designed master facilities plan for the city's public school system. The school plan must be a living document. That is, it must be specific enough to give citizens a roadmap of where our schools are going, yet flexible enough to respond to unforeseen events and future demographic changes. At its core, it must be focused on how best to serve the scholastic needs of New Orleans' children.

In the opinion of many neighborhood groups and other organizations, the proposed School Facilities Master Plan (SFMP) currently under consideration does not meet these standards. We agree. Therefore, before the Orleans Parish School Board approves the proposed plan at a special meeting this Thursday (Nov. 6), the document should be changed to address the community's concerns. In addition, the outgoing school board, which has five of seven members not returning to office in January, should let the new board have some input as well.

Here are a few of the public's concerns:

A grassroots group in Mid-City called Neighbors of Morris Jeff School has discovered that the SFMP actually makes the situation worse, not better, for students in their planning district. Members of the group used the plan's own demographics to show that by 2012 — the end of Phase I of a six-phase, 10-year plan — the district would lose more than 700 elementary school seats and have a shortage of 1,307 seats overall.

McMain High School, located Uptown, is scheduled to be "land-banked" by 2012, which means the school will be closed and the site held until the school board can either sell it or use it for other purposes. McMain has been one of the area's highest performing schools, and parents have complained that shuttering it will force students to travel to Booker T. Washington High School in Central City. Teachers say the move ultimately will mean fewer parents sending their children to public high schools.

As reported in The Times-Picayune, the Algiers Charter Schools Association is offering its own version of a master plan for Algiers. The association opted to write its own plan after learning that the SFMP would close two West Bank high schools, O. Perry Walker and Edna Karr.

The Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report in September noting that funding is guaranteed only for Phase I of the plan. The SFMP will cost at least $1.8 billion, but to date only $685 million is available, mostly from FEMA and other federal sources. BGR adds that the plan does not address whether or how the $1 billion-plus gap can be covered, but only offers a brief discussion on other funding possibilities such as local sales taxes and property taxes. The report concludes that the master plan must be "grounded in fiscal realities."

These are not insurmountable obstacles. In fact, Neighbors of Morris Jeff School say they have met with Recovery School District (RSD) officials and have been assured that the seating capacity problems will be corrected. Additionally, RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas and Orleans Parish School Superintendent Darryl Kilbert are scheduled to release specific recommendations regarding the SFMP on Monday (Nov. 3).

The superintendents' recommendations are crucial, and they should be given time and attention by board members as well as the public. For that reason, we see no need to set the plan in stone this week. After all, it's been more than three years since Katrina; a few more weeks of analysis won't hurt. Moreover, five new members of the Orleans Parish School Board will take office in January. They deserve a chance to weigh in on this important document.

At most, we believe the current board should consider the superintendents' recommendations, make some adjustments in the proposed plan, and adopt its broadly stated goals and vision with the understanding that the new board will have to implement the plan. Along with that responsibility should come the opportunity to tweak the plan's details in response to community concerns.

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