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Efforts to reinvent public education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have drawn such interest that it’s easy to lose sight of some very concrete changes that will become obvious over time: A generation of brand-new school buildings is rising across the city.
New Orleans is in the early stages of a construction spree both to build and renovate dozens of schools, and recently got news of an eye-popping settlement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, under which the federal government is providing more than $1.8 billion to cover storm-related damages to schools.
“Everybody loves reform, but they kind of forget that we have this big [construction] program going on,” said Ramsey Green, the director of operations for the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, which oversees most of the city’s public schools. Even before the storm, he added, New Orleans was in dire need of overhauling its many aging school buildings, which had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect.
In August, five years after Katrina struck, the RSD opened a new $54 million high school in the Algiers section of the city. That was in addition to the construction of another new high school and an elementary school completed within the past year, as well as recent major renovations to several other facilities.
While the massive construction initiative and the settlement with FEMA are welcome news in the city, some observers argue that state and local officials have set themselves up for trouble in how the process is moving forward.
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“We don’t believe there is adequate oversight of what is happening in terms of making decisions on how projects are being prioritized and whether alterations need to be made to the [facilities] plan,” said Tara S. O’Neill, the policy manager at the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, a think tank based at Tulane University in New Orleans. “And we don’t think there is adequate room for input from stakeholders. ... Individual school leaders feel like they would like to have more of a voice, students and parents would like to have more of a voice.”
But Mr. Green said that RSD officials meet with community members “every single day” to get input on the construction program, and that there will be more-formal opportunities for feedback over time, especially as a master facilities plan developed for the school construction effort is updated.
“There is more oversight of the RSD’s construction program than any school construction program anywhere in the nation,” he argued, pointing to a review process for construction-related financial transactions that operates at multiple levels, including by the Louisiana legislative auditor and FEMA itself.
Hurricane Katrina and the mass flooding that ensued in August 2005 damaged the vast majority of New Orleans public school buildings, some of them beyond repair, according to the RSD. In the initial phase of recovery and reconstruction, schools that were the least damaged were repaired quickly to receive children returning after the storm.
The RSD also provided sets of portable classrooms to serve as schools in some places. Currently, RSD officials say, about 6,000 students attend school in portable classrooms or other temporary spaces, out of about 36,000 students overall in RSD schools.
In 2008, a School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish was adopted by the state board of education and the Orleans Parish school board. The plan came after dozens of meetings with educators, parents, and community and neighborhood groups, according to Louisiana’s state education agency. It will be updated periodically, with changes driven in part by demographic shifts.
The work envisioned in the first of six phases was projected to cost nearly $700 million. The first phase alone includes constructing 22 new schools and completely renovating 10 others by 2014.
The plan also calls for a reduction in the total number of school buildings to fit the city’s smaller student population. Before Katrina, the city school system had nearly 130 school buildings with a total capacity of some 107,000 students, Mr. Green said, but even then, enrollment was far below that level.
“The school system was paying to maintain and operate something like 30 to 35 schools that it didn’t necessarily need,” he said.
The current plan, Mr. Green said, is to have about 85 campuses across the city.
Execution of the master plan was to be monitored by an independent oversight committee created to provide assurance that all phases of the facilities master plan would be completed on time and on budget, and to help in its effective implementation.
But a recent report from the Cowen Institute notes that the RSD had committed at least $262 million in capital contracts before members of that panel had even been selected.
What’s more, Nash Molpus Crews, the institute’s associate director, argues that leaders at the Louisiana education department and the RSD have resisted giving the committee a meaningful role in providing oversight.
“They do not want [the committee’s] engagement in the oversight process,” Ms. Crews said.
Mr. Green said that the oversight panel “has lately become increasingly politicized, going beyond its scope and responsibilities,” and that RSD Superintendent Paul G. Vallas and state schools Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek have asked for its makeup to be “re-evaluated.”
Mr. Pastorek recently announced plans for the RSD to appoint an inspector general to also provide an oversight role, but critics say the idea is flawed because that person would be a direct RSD employee.
“I think it has to be someone external; it cannot be someone they go to lunch with,” said Lourdes F. Moran, the co-chair of the facilities-oversight panel and a member of the Orleans Parish school board.
Mr. Green said the inspector general would report “regularly” not only to Mr. Vallas, but also to the state superintendent and the state board of education.
A central element of the settlement agreement between state and local officials and FEMA is to provide considerable flexibility in how and where the $1.84 billion in federal aid for renovating and building schools is spent. The FEMA reimbursement process typically requires spending focused on repairing or replacing particular damage at individual schools, but the flexibility was made possible by federal legislation championed by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat. The money is going to both the Orleans Parish school board, which oversees 16 schools, and the RSD, which oversees 70.
Some observers and charter school operators have expressed concerns about the design of new school buildings as laid out in the master plan and undertaken so far, suggesting they may not always be a good fit for the needs of the city’s diverse set of charter schools. Among their concerns are that the large buildings provide far more space than charters may need, and may prove expensive to operate.
Mr. Green, the RSD director of operations, said that the master plan drew on national standards for school facilities, that the buildings are designed to be energy-efficient to save money, and that it would be unwise to cater to the specific needs of individual charter schools in the overall design of buildings.
“We don’t build custom schools for charters,” he said, noting that charter schools are granted short-term contracts to operate, and that some may not be around for the long haul. “We’re bridging the long-term responsibility of building schools that last 100 years,” Mr. Green said, “with the short-term demands of charters.”
Meanwhile, some charter operators housed in temporarily facilities have expressed frustration as they’ve been shuffled from one space to another while awaiting permanent buildings.
“It’s put our community through some real headaches, and drained a lot of parents, and distracted me from some of my primary responsibilities for a number of months,” said Benjamin Marcovitz, the founder and principal of New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. His school was moved from one set of portable classrooms to another several miles away for this year, and has encountered problems such as the local health department’s temporary shutdown of the school’s kitchen.
Mr. Marcovitz said that his school actively lobbied to remain where it was after getting notice last spring of the RSD’s plans for relocating the charter to the new site.
Stepping back, Mr. Green acknowledged that having some schools in temporary spaces, and having to move, can be difficult and disruptive. But the RSD has done the best it could, he said.
“We had a limited amount of real estate and had a lot of tenants who had unique needs,” he said. “Generally, our charters are pretty happy with their facilities, ... and we’re building these wonderful new schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Sees School Building Boom