Children’s voices filled the hallways at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in New Orleans last week for the first time in three months, as the first regular city public school opened since Hurricane Katrina struck.
Only about half of the 200 children who had registered to return to the pre-K-6 school in the city’s uptown area actually showed up on Nov. 28, the school’s reopening day, but nearly 200 more arrived and registered in the next two days, officials said.
“It sure is good to hear the kids’ voices in here again,” said Ron Midkiff, who had taught at the school for 15 years before he fled to Texas. His house was wrecked by Katrina, which has left most of the city uninhabited.
How eager was Mr. Midkiff to return? “Well, I got the call to come back on Friday. I went out and bought a [recreational vehicle] on Saturday. And I was parked behind the school on Sunday,” he said with a laugh.
Benjamin Franklin Elementary and Eleanor McMain High School, which is scheduled to open next month to students in grades 7-12, are the only two regular public schools that will reopen in New Orleans this school year. Two charter schools reopened earlier. Another 14 charter schools will open or reopen this month and in January, a telling sign of where the district appears to be headed.
A new state law, signed by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco on Nov. 30, empowers the state to take over 102 of the 117 New Orleans schools that were operating just before the hurricane. Most are expected to be operated by outside groups as charter schools, with some run directly by the state. (“La. Lawmakers OK Plan to Give State Control of Most New Orleans Schools,” Nov. 30, 2005.)
That leaves the New Orleans school board with few schools to run. Eleven of the 13 schools it chartered this fall on the city’s West Bank could be taken over by the state, but for this school year, the state has agreed to let the city operate them. That arrangement will be re-evaluated in the spring, said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard.
Money in Flux
The district’s financing was still uncertain last week. Legislation approved in a special session of the Louisiana legislature last month substantially reduced funding for districts that lost students after Katrina, such as New Orleans, and increased it for those receiving displaced students.
New Orleans had 56,000 students just before the hurricane struck on Aug. 29. As of last week, about 4,800 had informed the district that they planned to return this school year.
State estimates show New Orleans’ 2005-06 funding allocation cut from $204 million to $94 million. William V. Roberti, a managing director of a crisis-management company in New York City who is serving as the district’s chief reconstruction officer, said the district received about $67 million in state aid from July through October—before the new law changed the allocations—but now expects to get another $16 million or so in total for the remainder of the school year.
The district’s application for a $126 million loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pending, and Congress is still debating recovery aid for hurricane-affected districts.
“Do we have enough money to take care of all our obligations? The answer is no,” Mr. Roberti said last week. “We need to see what happens [in Congress], and we need that loan from the feds to make this stuff come together and work.”
As more schools moved to reopen, divisions over the district’s future persisted. Lourdes Moran, the vice president of the New Orleans school board and a charter school advocate, said the new landscape offers greater potential.
“It’s a real good thing we’re going to be able to offer our citizens,” she said. “Children, I feel, will finally get the education they so deserve. I think there is going to be a competitive nature that brings about excellence.”
Lawyers for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, however, were analyzing the new state law for a possible legal challenge.
Les Landon, a spokesman for the 22,000-member American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said lawmakers had pursued “an ideological agenda” in approving the takeover, motivated in part by a desire to “to eliminate the union.” Many certified teachers in New Orleans whose schools are being converted to charter status are being told they must reapply for their jobs, he said.