There is no shortage of problems confronting public education in New Orleans these days, but there appears to be a dearth of readily ascertainable solutions. Not surprisingly, many of the problems relate to money. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board's finances were such a mess that the state required the board to bring in outside turnaround experts to get to the bottom of things. Now the system faces a whole new set of problems brought on by Katrina, which displaced more than three-fourths of the city's public school population for most if not all of the current academic year.
On the instructional side, state lawmakers stepped in last November and transferred more than 100 low-performing New Orleans public schools to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which oversees the newly created Recovery School District. One immediate effect of that decision is that New Orleans now has two school boards instead of one. The Orleans Parish School Board still controls the better-performing schools like Lusher, Ben Franklin, McDonogh No. 35 and more than a dozen others, while BESE, via the Recovery School District, has all the "problem" schools. More than once, BESE members have remarked that they feel like a dog that has chased a bus for years -- and now has finally caught it. So, what do they do with it now? Under the "takeover" legislation passed last November, the Recovery District must draft short- and long-term plans for reopening as many schools as needed. That process is under way, and we are heartened to see so many applicants seeking to operate charter schools. We also caution that, while charter schools are an interesting model and offer potential for significantly increased public involvement, there is no "one-size-fits-all" cure for what ails public education in New Orleans. For now, though, there is a palpable feeling in the community that New Orleans has a chance to reinvent its public schools and turn them into a national model. We hope this window of opportunity remains open long enough for both boards to take full advantage of it.
That brings us to the financial problems. Here, BESE and the Orleans Parish School Board are haggling over limited funds in the face of mounting obligations. The biggest area of friction is a claim by the Orleans board that the takeover legislation gave schools, students and money to BESE but left the local board liable for most if not all of the system's debts. Those debts include bonds, unemployment benefits for teachers laid off after Katrina, health insurance costs for a suddenly large pool of retired teachers, insurance premiums on school buildings, legal judgments and various other debts. State Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans has introduced Senate Bill 484 to require the Recovery District to assume a proportionate share of the local system's debts along with the schools it took over. BESE counters that most of the debts are "old" and not directly related to the schools now in the Recovery District. The two sides have been trying to broker a compromise, but it has not been easy, and more work remains to be done.
The bottom line, in our view, is that the money problems are bigger than either board -- particularly in the wake of Katrina -- and without additional help, neither board will be able to concentrate on issues relating to students. The takeover itself puts friction between the two boards; they shouldn't be forced to fight over resources. In the short term, the solution requires state action. More specifically, Gov. Kathleen Blanco must make a concerted effort to put more state and federal dollars into both systems to keep them solvent and to allow them to focus on the kids. Otherwise, the local board may have to declare bankruptcy, which would put more pressure on the Recovery District, which is still trying to figure out which of the "problem" schools to reopen and when. The good news is that the state budget being contemplated for next year is the biggest in Louisiana history, and there's even more money available in the form of Community Development Block Grants and other federal sources. What's needed locally is leadership, and that must come from the top.
On yet another front, parents and community leaders are pressuring both boards to get schools open, but officials are concerned about health and environmental issues. No school will be reopened unless it complies with current regulations, but that does not mean a future lawsuit couldn't be filed for some alleged failure to warn about environmental issues. This has already happened at the Moton Elementary School, which is built on a former landfill but opened years ago because of community pressure for a neighborhood school. Rep. Karen Carter of New Orleans has introduced House Bill 902 to give the local board immunity from civil lawsuits arising out of conditions related to Hurricane Katrina, particularly when school officials are trying to comply with all current codes and regulations. This bill makes sense and should be adopted.