NOLA Public Schools could consider new tax for building repairs as they face $136 million gap | Education

Facing a $136 million gap between the cost of desired school building repairs and the available funding over the next decade, NOLA Public Schools should consider additional sources of capital maintenance and repair revenue, perhaps even a new tax, a school district official told the Orleans Parish School Board recently.

Based on an assessment of every facility owned by NOLA Public Schools, the district projected that it will need about $336 million for repairs over the next 10 years, about a third of which — $108 million — will be needed in the first two years, Tiffany Delcour, chief operations officer for NOLA Public Schools, told the board at a meeting on Tuesday.

Capital projects are funded by the School Facility Preservation Program, which allocates money to schools for repairs based on student enrollment rather than need.

‘A really big problem’

The district’s projected revenue from the fund over the next 10 years is $328 million, but only $199 million will be available for needed repairs because of the way state law restricts use of the money, Delcour said. That leaves about $129 million sitting in the accounts of schools who don’t need it.

“We actually have a really big problem,” Delcour said.

The program was written into state law in 2014 to ensure the buildings built with federal funds after Hurricane Katrina would be maintained. Officials anticipated “a bubble that will burst in the next 10 to 20 years” when those buildings all required repairs at around the same time, she said.

Even if the preservation program is tweaked to make spending more flexible, the district needs to find additional money to invest in older facilities, Delcour said. “It’s really just about finances and need,” she said.

“It was assumed that the district would find alternative pots of capital funding dollars to really deal with the half of the portfolio that did not have significant investment post-Katrina,” she said.

This could mean asking voters to approve another millage in addition to the existing 4.97-mill capital repairs tax, which funds the program, she said. It expires in 2024.

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Additional sources of revenue could also help the district deal with emergency repairs. Delcour said the district typically spends about $10 million per year on unplanned emergency capital needs, but with Hurricane Ida last August, the district spent $12 million this year.

“We know emergencies happen in this district mostly because we are in an area that is prone to disasters, climate change impacts and also just the historic nature of our facilities,” Delcour said.

Project Priority

With limited available funds, the district will prioritize the most imperative projects that essentially keep buildings intact, airtight and “if not working we cannot have school,” Delcour said.

The majority of facilities are “high quality,” but about 11 are considered the worst quality and represent 40% of the capital need, Delcour said.

For schools housed in the worst-off facilities, Delcour said the district would “be looking for every opportunity” to move them into a better quality facility. The district may also consider having schools share facilities.

But with the anticipated drop in enrollment as population declines, the number of schools needed in New Orleans may drop. Earlier this year three schools were selected to move into district-owned buildings, two of which were vacated at the end of the school year by schools that will voluntarily close due to declining enrollment. As the process continues, Delcour said, the district plans to hire a demographer and present a plan with community input on how best to use empty district-owned buildings by December of this year or early next year.

Board member Carlos Zervagon questioned the logic behind the way funds are allocated in the School Facility Preservation Fund and said that deferred maintenance equated to “destruction of the district’s facilities.” When he attended Eleanor McMain Secondary School, he said, there was no air conditioning, the heat failed “all the time,” paint flaked off the ceilings, the roof leaked, and there was asbestos.

“People of my generation are pretty sensitive to this issue in terms of the neglect that went on,” Zervagon said. “We certainly don’t want to repeat that and it sounds like ironically the older buildings with the most need that our hands are tied so the solutions have created a new problem of potential deferred maintenance if we don’t fix this.”

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