The slimy mildew clinging to classroom walls for years, the termite-eaten floors, the paint peeling from school ceilings — Hurricane Katrina washed all that way.
The storm that destroyed much of this city also devastated the New Orleans public schools.
But that wasn’t all bad.
The system, regarded as one of the worst in America, had been rotting for decades: Buildings were neglected. Kids weren’t learning. Millions of dollars were squandered or stolen.
Now, six months after Katrina, only a handful of schools have reopened so far, but many people see the storm’s destruction as a unique opportunity to rebuild a system that had no place to go but up.
“This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of Katrina,” says Sajan George, a turnaround expert who began working at the schools before the storm. “We would not have been able to start with an almost clean slate if Katrina had not happened. So it really does represent an incredible opportunity.”
But how does a school system reinvent itself in a city when money is scarce and misery plentiful?
A whole new mind-set?That’s what some educators are proposing with a plan that calls for a major shakeup: Schools would be grouped in clusters run by managers. Students would have choices about where they’d attend. And most money and hiring decisions would shift from the superintendent’s office to the principals, who are considered more attuned to their schools’ needs.
“We have to have a whole new mind-set about how we approach public education,” says Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University and head of a mayoral committee that developed the plan. “If we can get our heads around true transformation, we can turn it around.”
But change won’t come easily.
There’s a long history here of squabbling among board members, scandal and academic failure. And that was before Katrina. Now there are new headaches: Thousands of teachers have no jobs. Parents are frustrated with the slow pace of school reopenings. And insiders are openly skeptical of plans for the future.
“I don’t think you turn around a failing system by changing the structure of the system,” says Ora Watson, interim superintendent of the New Orleans public schools.
Watson also feels not everyone is being heard.
“Some people are being left out of the conversation,” she says. “I’m talking about poor people, people who populated the schools, the African-American community.”
The Bring New Orleans Back Education Committee that developed the plan says it consulted a diverse group of more than 1,500 people from New Orleans, including teachers, parents and students, along with experts around the nation, and is committed to creating top-quality schools in every neighborhood.
The Orleans Parish school board has endorsed the plan.
Hurricane was just the final nailIt has been no secret something had to be done to fix a system so mismanaged that budgets hadn’t been balanced in five years, teachers often received inaccurate paychecks and corruption was endemic.
The system was already on the brink of financial collapse when Katrina roared in, severely damaging about a quarter of the schools: Roofs caved in. Fierce winds blew out walls and hurled desks through windows. Floodwaters drowned about 300 buses.
Total losses could reach as high as $1 billion.
Federal dollars will go a long way toward rebuilding, but the schools still face a projected $111 million deficit by June.
And the traditional streams of school dollars — property and sales taxes — have shrunken dramatically because some neighborhoods still look like post-apocalyptic burial grounds and many businesses remain shuttered.
Yet schools will be a major barometer of New Orleans’ success in luring families back home.
“As long as we don’t replicate what we had before, I think schools can be a magnet,” in repopulating the city, says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a think tank.
George, a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal, the turnaround firm hired to help the schools, agrees. “There is something symbolic about physically opening a school that encourages people to come back,” he says.
15 percent of students backIt took three months for the first regular public school to reopen. Now, 20 schools are holding classes, with about 9,500 students — slightly more than 15 percent of some 60,000 enrolled before the storm. Three more schools may open in April.
Some parents grumble that’s not enough, but caution makes sense, says Bill Roberti, another Alvarez & Marsal managing director. “Do you rush and open them the way they were,” he asks, “or do you take the time and try to fix them?”
Explaining who’s in charge of the schools these days requires a scorecard and some background.
Katrina prompted two dramatic changes that have turned the old Orleans Parish school system into a shadow of its former self:
Last fall, the state was given authority to take control of about 90 percent of the city’s public schools — those considered “failing” because they fall below a state average based on test scores, dropout rates and attendance.
A handful of schools had already been taken over before the storm. Now, 112 of 128 that were in the Orleans Parish system are part of a state-administered “school recovery district” and will remain that way for five years.
Charter schools favoredThe second big shift came when some educators — led by a school board member — split off 13 schools in the Algiers area on the less-damaged west bank of the Mississippi River and had them designated as charters.
Charter schools have their own boards, so they can design their own schedules and curriculum and choose their own principals and teachers.
After Katrina, chartering schools turned out to be “the most expedient and quickest way to jump start the system,” because federal dollars were immediately available for them, says Cecil Picard, the state superintendent of education.
There is no long-range plan to replicate them throughout New Orleans, but some say it’s a fresh start.
“It allows you to change one school at a time,” says Brian Riedlinger, director of instruction at the Algiers Charter Schools Association.
And change clearly is needed in a system where some schools didn’t have enough books or even enough toilet paper before Katrina.
Constant turnover at the top didn’t help, either. Since 1996, nine temporary or permanent superintendents have run the public schools, according to Picard.
'A dog's breakfast of negligence'While there were outstanding public schools — including the state’s No. 1 in test scores — there were many more failures. Even insiders say there were disparities.
“Some schools prospered at the expense of others,” says Riedlinger, a 20-year veteran of the New Orleans schools. “We called it the 'haves’ and 'have nots.’ ... There was never a sense of equity in the school district.”
To make matters worse, incompetence and fraud bled the schools of resources.
“The system was just corrupt and terrible from top to the bottom,” says Carter Guice, an assistant U.S. attorney. “It was a dog’s breakfast of negligence to criminality.”
Since 2004, 24 people in the schools, including administrators, teachers and secretaries have been indicted on federal charges such as travel fraud, extortion and taking kickbacks. Fifteen have pleaded guilty.
Questions about financial wrongdoing also surfaced a few years ago when $71 million in federal funds could not be accounted for; an audit turned up most of the money, however, and sloppy record-keeping was blamed.
Then last year, the state hired Alvarez & Marsal. They were stunned by what they found.
“They hadn’t done bank records, so nobody could tell you exactly how much cash they had on hand,” George says. “Nobody could reconcile the payroll accounts. Nobody could tell you how many employees they had.”
The payroll error rate reached as high as 20 percent — compared with less than 1 percent nationally — meaning teachers frequently were underpaid or overpaid.
Wait and see attitudeThe plan to overhaul the system recommends moving most budget decisions to local schools.
“If you do that, you keep the pool of available money that can be stolen small enough so that it’s not really worth going to jail for,” says school board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz. “I’m very realistic.”
Most people here expect a smaller school system in the years ahead. The state estimates about 28,000 students will be back this fall in about 50 schools.
Educators say turning the schools around will take years, maybe even a generation, and they know many residents — including those who want to return — will be looking for signs of progress.
“People are waiting to see, just as they are waiting to see if the levees will be strong enough,” says Brandt, the think tank president. “They’re waiting to see whether it’s a new school system or the same old, same old. ... People are going to be watching very carefully.”