Public school students across New Orleans returned to class last week, ready to begin the fifth academic year after Hurricane Katrina. Much has changed in the local educational landscape since Katrina all but wiped out the city's public school system. For the past few years, education experts across the country have watched New Orleans play out the most sweeping set of school reforms and innovations in American history. Most of the attention has focused on charter schools, which sprang up in response to the need to replace failed public schools with new institutions offering higher standards and hope for better learning opportunities. At the same time, and virtually without notice, the Orleans Parish School Board also has begun to turn around its fortunes.
Just last month, the board reached a fiscal milestone: It restructured the system's long-term debt by selling $97 million in general-obligation refunding bonds. The sale marked the first time the school district had issued bonds in more than 10 years. In fact, the bond sale marked the first time in memory that the Orleans Parish School Board even qualified to sell any kind of bonds rated higher than "junk bonds." Moreover, the new bonds are rated "Aa3" by Moody's Investors Service and "A-plus" by Standard & Poor's — the highest public bond ratings in the metro area, and one of the highest in the state. The refunding will save taxpayers more than $26 million in the next 10 years and will repay "old" debt more than two years early.
This didn't happen by accident. Before the storm, school board policies seemed to be guided more by politics than best practices, and the system — particularly the children — paid a hefty price. After Katrina, state lawmakers took more than 100 "failing" schools from the local board. The previous board began making drastic cuts to right-size the system, and the current board (elected in 2008 and installed in January 2009) continued that trend. As a result, the district went from a $3.8 million negative fund balance in 2005 to a surplus of $65.9 million in 2006 and $68.9 million in 2007. "The trend has remained strong in '08 and '09," says system CFO Stan Smith. "We feel strongly that the ratings we received from both Moody's and S&P show that the district is heading in the right direction."
We agree. And, on an even more important note, test scores are up significantly in the system's traditional schools as well.
As we recall the devastation wrought by Katrina five years ago, we should also note that many of those who returned have begun to rebuild a better New Orleans.