District Faces Unprecedented Recovery Task

Crisis-Management Firm Taking Stock of Damage to New Orleans’ Schools
By Catherine Gewertz — September 02, 2005 4 min read
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The New Orleans public schools, already on the ropes, were dealt a knockout blow last week by Hurricane Katrina.

With some parts of the city under 20 feet of water—and its transportation, water, telephone, and electrical systems inoperable—there were no firm estimates of when schools in the 60,000-student system might reopen.

For any school district, cleaning up after a hurricane and flood is a Herculean task. But the New Orleans district, observers noted last week, already was hobbled by financial instability, political infighting, allegations of corruption, and turnover in leadership.

‘So Dire’

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said New Orleans faces even tougher prospects in trying to recover than did the schools in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, or those in San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake

“Whether New Orleans is in strong shape operationally or not,” he said, “the situation there is so dire and so outsized, so unlike what anyone has seen before, that it’s hard to compare what they are going to be facing to almost anything else.”

In the aftermath of the storm, the New York City crisis-management firm that won a contract this past spring to run the district’s finances stepped in.

William V. Roberti, a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal who is leading the New Orleans work, said in a telephone interview from Baton Rouge that he had been meeting with state Superintendent of Schools Cecil J. Picard and talking with local education leaders such as Brenda Mitchell, the president of United Teachers New Orleans, to determine how to get the school system going again.

“The first priority is to get a physical assessment of the situation,” Mr. Roberti said, “and how long it’s going to take us to be able to get the system back up and running to support children, and teaching and learning.”

On Aug. 31, Mr. Roberti and others received police and National Guard permission to enter district headquarters, he said. They found the five-story building standing, but damaged, with several inches of water on some of the floors. As the ceiling leaked in the main computer room, Mr. Roberti retrieved tapes from the computer system that he hopes will allow his company to keep at least some of the district’s business operations running.

“Now we’ve got to see if we have the information we need to meet payroll,” he said. He added that his team was doing business from the Louisiana Department of Education’s offices in Baton Rouge, but was talking with suppliers of computer hardware to put together a system so the tapes and other district records could be used.

With the opening of schools potentially months away, Mr. Roberti said Mr. Picard was urging employees in the affected school districts to apply for unemployment benefits.

Even though a recovery plan was far from complete, Mr. Roberti said he welcomed the chance to be of use.

“This is a gigantic tragedy for the people of Louisiana and for the people of New Orleans,” he said. “I’m glad we’re here to be able to assist them through this crisis. We are a crisis-intervention and -management firm. That’s what we do.”

Alvarez & Marsal assumed control of the district’s fiscal operations in July, under an agreement pushed by the state education department in the wake of a federal audit that questioned the district’s spending of some $70 million in Title I money.

State auditors had been complaining for more than a year that the district’s overall poor accounting had made it impossible to get a clear picture of its finances. Federal prosecutors also have indicted scores of current and former district employees on fraud charges over the past 12 months.

History of Turmoil

Last month, Alvarez & Marsal said the district needed to cut $48 million from its $400 million budget. The system also had to seek a loan of $50 million to make payroll, and announced the first of what was expected to be a series of layoffs just before Katrina hit.

Compounding the difficulties have been the fractious relations among its top leaders. Superintendent Anthony S. Amato called it quits in April amid tensions with the school board. Since then, board members have quarreled among themselves over the hiring of the private contractor and other issues.

This past summer, the board reportedly almost replaced its acting superintendent, Ora Watson, and the panel has yet to hire a search firm to find a successor for Mr. Amato.

Even before the hurricane and the ensuing flooding, school buildings were in a state of disrepair, plagued by Formosan termites, mold, and rot. Many lacked air conditioning and didn’t meet current safety and health codes. Several schools had been condemned in recent years.

“Most of our schools were over 100 years old and they may have to be demolished,” said Brenda L. Mitchell, the president of United Teachers New Orleans. “We’re hoping America is going to throw its arms around us.”

The Knowledge Is Power Program, which has been in the process of converting a low-performing New Orleans school into a KIPP charter school called Phillips Preparatory, received an e-mail message from a regional official that embodied the uncertainty hovering over the schools last week.

The Aug. 30 e-mail from Shani Jackson said that she had reached the school’s director of operations and “been able to account for most of the staff.” But information about students and their families, many of whom live in a nearby housing project, was “hard to come by.”

Stephen Mancini, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based KIPP, said the first concern was safety. “But we are committed to get it up and running again as soon as possible,” he said of the school.

Nat LaCour, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, said restoring the schools in his native city will be difficult, to say the least.

“Given the fact that there are so many problems, it’s a legitimate question whether they can do it all.”

Associate Editor Jeff Archer contributed to this report.

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