Recently, we attended a meeting of the local Justice and Beyond organization. Taking center stage were state lawmakers who received a whole lot of what-for regarding Act. 543 and the Orleans Parish school maintenance tax, which passed despite widespread concern over money being funneled to the Recovery School District (RSD).
Yes, folks are still upset over this tax. And more than anything, they blame state lawmakers who, with the support of other Black leaders, passed Act 543. This law, without a need for voter approval, captures a portion of local sales tax for use by the RSD and brought the proposal for a millage renewal (one that would have otherwise expired) to voters so that even more money could be pumped in to this school maintenance fund.
Meanwhile, it seems we are learning something new every other week about the financial failings of the RSD and some of the charter schools under its loose control.
Here at The New Orleans Tribune, we were unapologetically vocal about our reservations regarding this millage. It was bad business all the way around, we said, to give local tax dollars to a state agency that does not actually control a single school in our city nor answer to the voters and taxpayers here. What’s more is that the entity should no longer be here, at least not still exercising such a degree of control. Schools that it failed to improve five years following Hurricane Katrina should have been shut down. And those that did improve were to have been returned to the Orleans Parish School Board. Instead, our schools were handed over to independent charter operators and laws were trickily worded and hastily passed to make returning them to the people of this city about as likely snow in New Orleans. Though several schools have been eligible to return to the Orleans Parish School Board over the last few years, independent charter school boards have been given the unheard-of right to determine if they go back to OPSB. Of course, they are not inclined to relinquish the schools and the budgets and power that come with them. To date, only two schools (MLK Charter and Lagniappe Academies) have been returned. Still, the voters approved the measure.
And why wouldn’t they? It was curiously endorsed by a number of local organizations and leaders who are held in high regard. Yes, we found some of those endorsements puzzling and couldn’t help but wonder what is the end game—certainly there is one—for those that supported this flawed millage renewal.
Let’s not forget that until local attorney Willie Zanders was able to successfully secure an injunction, many of the local schools brazenly displayed pro-mil-lage signage on public school property, which is against the law. All of this is to say that while we respect the voters of this city, we have to wonder how many of them were led to vote in favor of the millage without really understanding what was at stake.
Still, it is done. The millage has passed. Though, we understand that there is a lively effort in progress to get Act 543 repealed. We will watch this process with anticipation. We believe those community leaders that want to see this thing overturned are starting at the appropriate place—with the law, and more importantly, with the lawmakers that voted for it in the first place.
And this brings us back to that meeting several weeks ago with Justice and Beyond and a few of those very same lawmakers getting an earful from constituents on how they really dropped the ball on Act 543.
So here is what almost knocked the wind out of us. One of those lawmakers declared that no one had alerted him about the concerns over the bill, that no lobbyist or community leader had called him to tell him that there were folks (i.e. the people he represents) down here in New Orleans that might not think it’s the best idea to pass a bill that gives our money to the RSD.
He said no one told him! To paraphrase today’s youth: You serious or nah?
On the contrary, dear lawmakers, knowing what really helps or hurts the people you lead is what you are elected to do. If you cannot be trusted to represent the needs and interests of the people that gave you their votes, then why did you petition to become an elected representative?
We’re not about to sit quietly while you suggest that someone should have told you better. You should have known better. And if you were not sure, you should have asked!
It’s been more than a decade now since this travesty has been set in motion. It started before Hurricane Katrina; and now an entire generation of school children have suffered.
And wait one second, you expect us to believe that you didn’t know that there are plenty of folk in New Orleans tired of the stronghold that the RSD has on local education? Some of you took part in pre-election editorial interviews with our staff where questions about what you would do if elected to get local public schools out of RSD control were asked. WE made it clear that there were plenty of folk not happy with the fact that the RSD appeared to be here to stay. And that was five years ago! Still, you go to Baton Rouge and pass a law that gives the RSD more money and by extension, more power.
Come on! You knew. Every last one of you that cast a vote in favor of 543 or any other law that has stripped power away from the people of this city knew; and you did what you wanted to do anyway. You did what was convenient. You did what brought you political allies or friends in high places.
By the time folk were hearing about Act 543, you guys had already passed it. But that seems to be the way it always goes. Better still, we have to wonder if knowing that some folk didn’t think Act 543 was a good idea would have made much of a difference. We cannot count the times we have heard lawmakers at all levels defend their support of a questionable bill that has had a deleterious impact on us with self-righteous grandstanding and showboating. We have heard it all:
“I stand by what I did, and if I have to do it again . . . “
“I can show you all sorts of people who are happy that we did that . . . “
“Something had to be done . . .”
Then again, why wouldn’t you be self-righteous? Quite frankly, the voters of this city have done a pretty lackluster job at holding your feet to the fire. And perhaps, so have we. So, this editorial is not really about Act 543 or that recent Justice and Beyond meeting or any one lawmaker. You see, Act 543 and everything else we’ve mentioned here are just examples—the latest in a long list of examples of lawmakers gone wild. But it does pave the way to serve notice that there are those who are tired of it.
You don’t have to worry about anyone giving you a call to get that memo. You read it right here. It is accountability time.
Don’t come looking for an endorsement. Don’t come here thinking that we have amnesia. Don’t expect us to implore our readers to vote for you without explaining yourselves. Don’t come here without some real examples of how you have served and helped the people of this community.
It is accountability time.
It is accountability time for each and every one of our elected officials, especially African Americans. Show and prove. Tell us what you have done for us. Perhaps more importantly, we want you to tell us what you have done to empower and protect the best interests of the people you serve.
It is accountability time. And to the voters of New Orleans: Accountability time does not work without you. Repeal efforts are commendable. Community meetings that share information and provide facts are great starting points. They are useful and important, but they mean nothing if not followed up by real action.
We must stop blindly giving our votes to folk because their names are familiar or because that’s who we’ve always voted for. You voted for them once and they sold you down the river. News flash, voting for them a second time or a third or a fourth does not motivate them to do better by you. They actually become more complacent, more certain that no matter what they do, they can count on your vote. They get comfortable enough to say crazy stuff to your face like the reason they voted for a bill that not only ignores but fuels one of the greatest political and educational injustices enacted against your community is because no one called and told them there was a problem.
It is accountability time.
Voters, arm yourself with information. We know, we know. We are all busy. And life is so demanding, but there are a number of ways to stay informed that won’t require huge time commitments. Read and research, talk to trusted friends and neighbors. We will talk about everything under the sun—the football game, the basketball game, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Tom Benson’s family drama. Let’s talk about those things that are impacting our lives today and the future for our children and grandchildren.
It’s accountability time. Join a community organization. Justice and Beyond is an example of one group that is doing a great job at providing information about political, social and civic issues impacting our community. One meeting each week for just a couple of hours can make a big difference. And there are other groups out there. Find one with values and priorities that align with your own.
It is accountability time because the insanity must end. We cannot keep doing the same thing expecting a different result.
It is accountability time. If we don’t start holding people’s feet to the fire, we will inevitably always be the ones getting burned.
It is accountability time.