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Previously reeling, Orleans schools troubled even worse after Katrina

Foreword: This was the posting I wrote Monday morning, when it was apparent Hurricane Katrina missed New Orleans and the direct damage from it seemed minimal, which I had intended to run later that day:

As if things couldn’t get any worse, the Orleans schools cleanup needs may be more extensive than those created by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s not enough that 65 percent of the Orleans Parish School District’s schools failed state accountability standards, and that the budget is tens of millions of dollars on the negative side, and that the federal government is investigating the whereabouts of $70 million. Now we have confirmation of the system’s financial corruption that shows nobody who should know does know what is going on there – or perhaps that they even care.

The most incredulous aspect to all of this is that the practices of “gaming” the system where allowed to continue year after year. How unaware were the system’s top officials. Summing it all up was the remark made by Interim Superintendent Ora Watson: “I've never worked in a school district where stipends played that big a role in how people got paid. It seemed that it had become, in my opinion, something people began to consider a right.”

How long has Watson worked for this system (I don’t actually know; the district’s website has no biographical information on her)? At least the past couple of years as the deputy superintendent, and she never had an inkling of any of this? This is going to be a real problem if she’s got more of a clue than anybody else in the system that doesn’t even know how many employees it has.

But what should we expect from a school board who fired the previous superintendent who had least tried to make progress, who then assented to Watson in the interim position then nearly replaced her, who fought the appointment of fiscal turnaround experts by calling the enterprise “racist,” and whose president did everything he could to prevent bringing in the experts Alvarez and Marsal?

None of this should have been any surprise to anybody years ago. In 2003-04, Orleans, with 9.36 percent of the average daily membership in state public schools, spent 15.84 percent of the state’s education expenditures. In other words, while the other 67 districts spent $4,709 per student, Orleans averaged a whopping $8,583 per student, over 82 percent more, to deliver the state’s worst education, according to test scores.

Even people with education administration degrees should have figured out a problem existed in Orleans schools long ago and begun to work to correct it. Then again, they probably got favored in this top-heavy, wasteful system. Interestingly, of all education employees statewide, Orleans only had 8.68 percent, but of theirs, 3.47 percent were top administrators – an incredible 27.4 percent of all such positions statewide being in Orleans.

And now there’s the complication of the Katrina aftermath. No doubt millions of dollars will have to be spent on repair of school facilities, by a system whose resource burden already groans under its weight.

Even with the first round of layoffs will 500-700 more to go, somehow the two years Alvarez and Marsal have doesn’t look long enough to salvage this incredible mess. Even if the streets were clear of water and school buildings habitable.

Afterword: Obviously, this analysis has been superseded. Likely the whole fall semester has been wiped out; there is no school system in operation to reform now, and won’t be for weeks. Maybe there won’t be a budget deficit now without any expenses, but infrastructural needs now must be in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s unclear whether the state even has the power to step in and run an entire school district on the basis of this kind of emergency. The cynical could say maybe the dirty flood waters will wash the system’s problems clean away and everything can start anew. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that simple or easy.

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