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No Taxation Without Representation!

“New Orleans is the only place in the state where the majority of taxpayers and voters have no participation in public education. The bigger thing is we have to have local control.”

-Raynard Sanders, Ed.D.,
education advocate & retired
educator and adminstrator

johnmac

Because our citizens are grossly underpaid, we are often hard-pressed to encourage them to vote in favor of tax increases. Whether it’s the middle-income homeowner toiling everyday just to stay above water or a low-wage earning renter that will certainly have the cost of higher taxes passed on to them through rising rents—few of our residents can afford a tax increase.

Still, when tax measures involve schools, we know that it is difficult to say no to anything we think will help children. The renewal of this millage on the Dec. 6 ballot would raise about $15.5 million (give or take, depending on property values) a year for ten years for funds that would be dedicated to the upkeep and maintenance of school buildings. They are calling it the School Facility Preservation Program. And that sounds nice.

Pretty packaging aside, though, if there were a place on the ballot to vote “Hell NO,” that’s the one we would want you choose.

Why is it so easy for The New Orleans Tribune to urge—no beg—each and every one of its readers to vote “NO” on the parish-wide proposition to approve this school building millage? Simple, this isn’t about our children. And it isn’t about the facilities where they attend school. We want you to think about what is really being proposed here. We need you to think about everything that has taken place in public education over the last 10 years. And if you still think this millage renewal is about children and school buildings, we insist that you think again.

It is About Control, Power and Money

Don’t get us wrong. We don’t have a problem with maintaining and repairing school buildings. And there are plenty of others who agree that there ought to be a plan to keep local school buildings in good condition so that our children learn in the best environments possible.

But as long as the Recovery School District, which does not directly operate a single school in this city, yet exercises heavy-handed control over the direction of public education here with backing from BESE and Gov. Jindal, is a part of the equation—and more specifically has its greedy little hands in the cookie jar—there is no way we can let this millage renewal pass.

One part of Act 543 is already set. All it took was a vote from the state legislature to approve the measure that gives the RSD a portion of the local sales tax earmarked to pay school bond debt in Orleans Parish. But the millage portion requires voter approval for its renewal.

And it is a good thing that it does.

“If they could have taken the millage money without involving us, they would have done that too,” says attorney and veteran school administrator Shawon Bernard, who has been working with the John McDonogh Steering Committee in what so far as been a futile attempt to get the facility back under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board.

We are not alone in our staunch opposition. There are plenty of folk giving this millage proposal the side eye.

State Rep. Joe Bouie has said that while creating dedicated funding for school facilities is “a good idea”, this measure falls short because it creates a mechanism “that will provide funding for the institutionalism of the RSD” with local dollars. It’s money that should go to the Orleans Parish School Board, which is the only elected body over public education in New Orleans, he says, adding that if the RSD, which is a state agency, needs to be funded to take care of school buildings under its control, then “the state should fund it.”

Former high school principal and local education advocate Raynard Sanders reminds us that “for the last nine years, (New Orleanians) have funded a system that we don’t control.” And like state Rep. Bouie, he thinks a plan for the upkeep of schools is fine, but is bothered by this one, calling it “a good idea, but a bad operation.”

“We need to take care of our schools,” Sanders says. “But do we give the authority to decide what capital improvements are needed to a group of self-appointed boards,” he adds, referring to the several dozen charter school boards that oversee charter schools operating in New Orleans. “New Orleans is the only place in the state where the majority of taxpayers and voters have no participation in public education. The bigger thing is we have to have local control.”

School board member Ira Thomas, who, along with board members Cynthia Cade and Leslie Ellison, cast the dissenting votes against putting the measure on the ballot, says the proposal makes no sense to him and calls the funding formula inequitable.

“The RSD has no academic purpose, so what they are attempting to do is shift their focus from academics to facilities management and use our local tax dollars to do it.”

And that’s just it. The purpose of Act 543—both the millage renewal proposal and the sales tax portion—is about empowering the RSD, which does not directly run a single school in Orleans Parish. Moreover, the schools it oversees are not governed by elected representatives of the people.

And that is why we say “NO!”

Our Opposition: It’s Time to Take a Stand

Our opposition to the proposal is about demanding real accountability. It is about insisting on the fiscally-sound use of current resources. It is about taxation without representation. It is about promises made and broken. It is about seizing this opportunity in the one arena in which we still wield some power (our vote) with regard to local schools and using it to say “NO”—NO more, NO longer, NO fair, NO way!

We are especially bothered because the proposed millage was purposely placed onto the Dec. 6 runoff ballot. The Orleans Parish School Board could have approved the referendum in time to place it on the Nov. 4 ballot. But that would have meant a higher voter turnout. And to be sure, there is a faction on that board that is more concerned with riding the wave of the so-called reform movement than they are with serving the people that have elected them. Recall, that was the same shady move pulled last year with the Audubon Nature Institute millage. Expecting that turnout would be low, they figure tax increases have a better chance of passing during a runoff election as opposed to a general one. Well, it didn’t work with the Audubon Nature Institute millage; and we, all of us together, have the power to stop yet another attempt to increase the burden on our residents.

More than that, we have chance to take a stand. As far as we are concerned, the answer has to be “NO” because far too many of the schools that operate within Orleans Parish do so outside of any direct oversight of a governing body comprised of representatives elected by the voters of New Orleans—also known as taxation without representation. If we remember our American history correctly, an entire revolution started because folks were being taxed without being heard.

Too Many Schools Outside of Our Control

Let’s face it, power brokers and the architects of the so-called education reform movement pulled one over on the people of New Orleans. They used opportunity and legislative maneuvering to hijack an entire school system. There was nothing fair or above board about what took place. The law was written to fit the circumstances and our schools were stolen. Act 9, approved by the legislature in 2003, created the RSD and defined a failing school in such a way that two years later only five schools in New Orleans fit the description. With the city empty as a result of Hurricane Katrina, the legislature wrote and passed another law, Act 35, expanding the definition of a failing school to a description that took 107 schools—schools considered passing schools just months earlier—away from the Orleans Parish School Board and gave them to the RSD. If this were Spades or Rummy, we’d call that getting pencil whipped.

Today, the RSD is one of the largest school systems in the state. And in Orleans Parish, it is the largest local education agency, though it does not directly run a single school. In the 2015-2016 school year, 90 schools are expected to operate in Orleans Parish. Only 20 (six direct-run and 14 charters, including four new charters) will be under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. Another nine are charter operations are approved by BESE. The other 61 of those schools are charters approved by the RSD, and those schools have their own appointed boards, comprised of men and women who are not accountable to voters. In fact, many of the men and women who serve on these boards don’t even listen to wishes of the parents and staff at their schools. Last year, 17 schools were eligible for return to the OPSB. In the three years before that, a total of 18 schools could have returned to OPSB control. At many of those schools, parents and school staff wanted to return to the OPSB, but those boards chose to remain under the RSD. That’s right—zero schools have elected to return to the OPSB because their independent charter boards have no problem saying “NO” to anything that means giving up control over the budgets and buildings that have been stolen from the people. Today, 36 charter schools are eligible for return to the Orleans Parish School Board. If the actions other charter boards exhibited over the past several years are any indication, they will vote to remain under the loose control of the state via the RSD, which has already broken too many promises.

Promises, Promises

Remember when the state promised that schools taken over by the RSD would be managed by the state agency for five years—long enough to correct the academic issues—and then returned to the local governing body? We do.

We also remember when that promise was broken by writing new legislation that gave charter school boards the right to decide if their schools go back to the OPSB. How counterintuitive was that? On what planet would these people be given the right to have complete control over our schools, our money and our children with no oversight? Talk about abnormal!

Remember when the RSD, through then-superintendent John White, promised tens of millions of dollars to renovate John McDonogh High School if and only if the campus was turned over to a charter operator? We do.

Remember the promise to actually fix our “failing” schools and improve academic performance.

Despite rhetoric and boastful assertions, many of the schools under the RSD umbrella are posting mediocre performances if not outright failing in the state’s accountability system. Even Tulane University’s Cowen Institute has finally found its conscience and retracted a recent report that used flawed research methods to brag about high graduation rates and test scores at local high schools.

The reality is that many of the schools assumed by the RSD have continued to earn Ds and Fs in the state’s accountability system. And when a school fails too many times, instead of being closed or returned to the OPSB system, the RSD typically turns it over to another charter outfit, hurling it into a state of transition, meaning no accountability rating is assigned to it for a few years so that parents, students and the general public have no clue how well the school is performing at all.

We remember the promises. What we don’t seem to recall is any of that stuff ever actually happening. Too many promises have been made and broken to now put the better part of $15.5 million each year in the hands of schools that do not belong to or answer to us. And rest assured that when Chas Roemer sits from his lofty perch as the chairman of BESE and declares that he isn’t giving John McDonogh High School back to the Orleans Parish School Board because he hasn’t seen a plan when in fact several plans have been submitted, these are no longer your schools.

The truth is there was never any intention to return John Mac or any other school to the OPSB. The historic building that housed John Mac will soon enough showcase new condos for the influx of the younger, genteel residents moving to our city if we don’t act quickly and decisively. If falsely declaring that he hasn’t seen a plan is what Roemer needs to say to buy more time for the real estate deal to go down, then that’s what he will say. To be sure, when some condescending, loud-mouthed, blowhard from Baton Rouge is calling the shots about the schools in your neighborhoods—they don’t belong to you anymore. Quite frankly, that’s been the case since 2005.

But all of a sudden, a coalition of folk need you to worry about the buildings and their upkeep so they talk about the children and talk about the conditions of the buildings, and they try to tug at your heart strings so they can get at purse strings. Don’t fall for it, people.

But It’s Not a New Tax—Wait! What?

Supporters of this millage or any tax renewal proposal for that matter love to point out that this is not a “new” tax. The best one we have heard yet is that it is a “re-purposing” of a millage set to expire. We fought the overwhelming desire to laugh out loud when we heard that here at The Tribune. Sometimes, we actually wonder if these people imagine a flashing sign that says “stupid” above the front door when they come here talking like that. When voters initially approved this tax to pay off bond debt, it was with the understanding that the millage would end in 2016. The time for it to expire is nearing, and now these folks want to you to “re-purpose” it to provide them with yet another pot of money to control.

One moment, pulling out the trusty thesaurus. Okay, “expire”, uh, “terminate”, “conclude”, “finish”, “halt”, “close”, “end”, “go away”. In other words, property owners would see their tax bills decrease in the absence of this millage, which is about to end. So whether it’s new or a re-“new”-al, this millage is asking for money that taxpayers otherwise would not be shelling out after 2016. We’re thinking many of you can come up with a few ways to “re-purpose” your own money. And we say buildings that Chas Roemer and John White get to call the shots about are not the best way to spend any money that you can now “re-purpose.”

After more than nine years of our schools subjected to state oversight (or the lack thereof) by the RSD, which has turned over each of the campuses once under its command to independent charter operators—we say it’s high time for another revolution. And voting “NO” on this school building millage is as close as we can get to our very own Boston Tea Party.

These schools are already in control of too much of our money with no accountability. They waste money on management fees. They waste money on outlandish salaries. And with no one other than their appointed boards controlling the coffers, they are allowed to do so. Remember the start of the 2013-14 school year. John McDonogh High School under the Future is Now charter management group started the school year with less than 300 students, but somehow justified $150,000 salary for its principal and chief academic officer and $115,000 salary for a ninth grade principal despite the fact that there were barely a dozen students enrolled in the ninth grade. In fact, there are plenty of six-figure salary charter school presidents, CEOs, CFOs in New Orleans—far too many, in fact, to entertain proposals for this or any other school millage renewal.

These schools waste money on outsourcing food services and janitorial services. They waste money on transportation. Because of the so-called open-enrollment policies of many of the schools, including those taken over by the state as well as those still under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board, transportation costs for public schools in New Orleans went from $18 million in 2005 to $30 million 2013.

Now what open enrollment in the new New Orleans really means is that parents and students fill out an application citing their three top choices and then cross their fingers and hope that the school they want also chooses them. In this new system, there are schools that give more priority to the children of employees than they do to the children who live next door. Today, there are far too many students going to school across town—miles and miles away from their homes. You want to talk about pulling on heart strings, picture the children that must gather at corners at 5 a.m. to ride the bus to the other side of the city to attend school. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Hello—$30 million on transportation—a full 40 percent more than what was spent eight years ago. Put the break on the buses, and maybe you will have money to fix a roof. If you can open a top-notch school in Lakeview or Uptown, you can surely open one in New Orleans East, in the Eighth Ward, in Hollygrove, and in every nook and cranny of the city instead of busing children all over town. The few million dollars that would be saved in transportation costs alone could be dedicated to buying chillers and boilers.

But Wait, They Have a Plan

Right now, proponents of this measure are all over town sharing their version of how these funds will be managed. They want us to know they have plan. The thing is we don’t get too excited about plans over here.

There is always a plan. You see, they had a plan when they took over the schools. Green space in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East was a plan. A Return to Splendor is a plan. Firing teachers was a plan. Tearing down public housing was a plan. Hell, when don’t they have a plan? The power structures across America have been planning and scheming to the detriment of Black people, Brown people and poor people in this country for centuries. It’s time we recognize this and come up with a few plans of our own.

At any rate, they desperately want the voters to know that they have a grand design for the schools facilities program. Want to hear it?

Schools will continue to perform and pay for general and preventative maintenance themselves, according to this plan. But they don’t have the money to pay for emergency repairs, capital outlay projects or replacements of major facility equipment, such as an AC system or an aging roof or an electrical system. And that is where your re-purposed money will come in. Until the bond debt is fully repaid, any money after all bond payments have been made will be administered by the RSD and the OPSB until 2021. First, $600,000 a year ($15 a student with the RSD having the most students) will be used by the RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board just to administer the School Facility Preservation Program. And funds remaining after that will be used for emergency and capital repairs.

Why more than a half a million dollars is needed to manage the facilities program is inexplicable to us. Are there no current offices or positions within the RSD and OPSB to which that function could fall? Actually, the answer is yes, there are. The OPSB already has a facilities office whose functions will “expand” to include oversight of the School Facility Preservation Program.  And according to its website, the RSD claims to have a “facilities and operations team” that manages all facilities and property under its control. If these offices and “teams” already exist and are responsible for school facilities under their control, it’s really a stretch to call any “new” facility program an expansion of the functions. Sounds like a waste $600,000 a year to us.

Until 2021, if a school has a need, they will go to the RSD or the OPSB to inspect the buildings under their “control”, assist with, monitor and inspect the work.

After 2021, it’s a whole new game. The plan allots each campus a pool of money deposited in their individual school facility accounts based on a per-pupil formula ($300 per student in renovated or rebuilt schools and $150 per student in refurbished schools or those that have not been refurbished and were built before 2005). The schools will administer these funds themselves, meaning in most cases that appointed boards will get to decide how more public money is spent.

So proponents of this farce had to come up with another selling point. They excitedly spout that the money follows the schools. That’s right, if any school now under RSD oversight goes back to the OPSB, their school facility fund follows them. But remember what we said about the likelihood of any of these appointed boards relinquishing the control they exercise over these campuses. To paraphrase the Good Book, we will probably see a camel using the eye of needle as a hula-hoop before one of these boards relinquishes control. So the promise that the money will follow the schools means nothing if the schools don’t go anywhere. It’s just another empty promise. By now, we are used to them.

Meanwhile, if the vast majority of schools in the city (61 by 2015-16 to be exact) are operated under the RSD umbrella, and the vast majority of students (roughly 30,000 today) are attending those schools, the vast majority of the money will go to schools with non-elected charter boards.

That’s why we say “NO!”

There’s more. Two revolving facility loan funds—one managed by the RSD and the other by the OPSB. Again, those loan accounts will be funded at the same per student rate as the individual campus accounts, meaning the RSD will again get the lion’s share of proceeds equal to the sum of all funds deposited into the individual campus accounts. A school will be able to tap these loan funds if their individual account for their campus’ capital improvement needs are less than $75,000.

Oh yeah, and that $600,000 annual payout to the RSD and OPSB to “manage” everything remains.

The program will have audit procedures, rules that prohibit the co-mingling of this fund with any other money, and more promises. There are promises that the school facility preservation fund will follow RSD and OPSB DBE policies, you know that bunch of guidelines and goals to which they are already not adhering. There is a list of stuff to make you feel good about giving your “re-purposed” money away to a group of entities that do not answer to you.

There’s more. They promise that this millage, if approved, would not make the RSD a permanent entity.

Many opponents of this bill don’t believe that is the truth. In fact, they are certain of the exact opposite. They are convinced that Act 543 and the millage renewal, if passed, are expressly designed to shore up the RSD’s existence in our community.

While we agree that Act 543 will serve to ensure the RSD’s power and control, we are not sure it was designed to ensure its existence. That’s only because it does not need to. You see, the fact that schools that were eligible were not simply returned to the Orleans Parish School Board about four years ago when they were supposed to be, and the fact that former state Superintendent Paul Pastorek conspired with BESE just before he ran out of town to give independent charter school boards the final say as to whether schools return to the control of a duly-elected governing body already solidified the permanency of the RSD. And that is not likely to change unless and until our state legislators—you know, those other people we elect to represent us in Baton Rouge—are forced to do something about it.

By the way, Pastorek is back in New Orleans with plans to open an educational consulting firm. Wonder if his expertise will be in school facility preservation?

So while all of these proposals sound nice, we have become all too familiar with empty promises surrounding local schools, making the only plan the people of New Orleans should be concerned about is when we PLAN to demand our schools back.

Until then, Vote “NO” on the school building millage proposition!

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