Law & Courts

Lawsuits Say Too Few Schools Open in New Orleans

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 14, 2006 3 min read
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The New Orleans teachers’ union and a lawyer for several local families have sued to force the opening of more public schools in the storm-ravaged city, but state education officials contend that enough space is available at the schools already operating.

In separate lawsuits, the United Teachers of New Orleans and a citizens’ group allege that hundreds of children are not being educated because public schools in New Orleans have turned them away.

“It’s unconscionable to me that schools are still closed and parents are having to look for places to send their children,” said Brenda Mitchell, the president of the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “How do they expect to rebuild this city if they can’t offer schools to parents and children who are returning?”

Two more K-8 public schools are slated to open this week in New Orleans and will serve up to 600 students, said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education. That will bring the number of public schools now open in the city to 20, with room for 10,600 students.

Not Walking Distance

Before Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, causing broken levees and a devastating flood that left much of the city uninhabitable, the New Orleans district operated 117 schools for roughly 65,000 students. Now, 102 of those public schools are part of a state-run “recovery district” created by the Louisiana legislature last fall to rehabilitate the city’s low-performing schools.

“We have no indication that kids are being turned away from schools,” said Ms. Casper, who added that state education officials have been working diligently to help parents who contact them find schools for their children.

“Part of the challenge is that parents can’t just necessarily walk to the school nearest their home and get their children in. … [I]t could be that if they found out there’s no room, they might have stopped there,” she added.

Ms. Casper cited enrollment numbers from Feb. 3, when 9,004 children were attending New Orleans public schools, which had the capacity to serve 10,000 students. She said it was still possible that more schools would open this academic year.

‘Reopen That School’

“It depends on the demand, though, because what we are not going to do is open a school without the students to fill it,” Ms. Casper said.

But Asta Levene, whose 10-year-old son Angelo attended McDonough #15 Elementary School in the French Quarter before the storm, said she tried, and failed, to enroll him in any of the reopened public elementary schools. “None would take him, so I sent him to St. Paul Lutheran across town,” Ms. Levene said in an interview last week. “But it was too expensive and too far away.”

Since mid-January, Ms. Levene has been home-schooling Angelo while she and her neighbors campaign to have McDonough #15 reopened as a charter school. Most of the reopened schools in the city are charters.

“They should reopen that school,” Ms. Levene said. “There’s hardly any damage, and there are nearly 200 parents who want their children to be able to go to school there.”

Tracie L. Washington, who filed a class action on behalf of families with children who have been turned away, said the young people she sees around the city on school days are evidence that more schools need to be opened. “I drive down streets every day and see kids on their bikes; they are not in school,” she said.

Most days, Ms. Washington said, she asks the district to supply her with a list of parents who have contacted the district complaining they can’t find schools for their children.

“For example, on February 3, there were calls about problems enrolling 11 prekindergartners, 10 kindergartners, four 1st graders, and on and on,” she said. “That’s just one day.”

A Feb. 17 hearing is scheduled in the case filed by Ms. Washington. Though several families she represents have now been able to enroll their children in school, the New Orleans lawyer said she would have additional families in court with her this week who have not found spots for their children.

Ms. Mitchell, whose union represents roughly 4,000 New Orleans teachers who have not returned to their jobs since Hurricane Katrina struck, said she was waiting for the first hearing to be scheduled in that lawsuit.

In a related development, a court order in a separate lawsuit filed by several New Orleans district employees to delay the firing of 8,500 district employees until Feb. 8 was extended to Feb. 13.

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