Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Public Input in the Public School Plan

Posted By on Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 7:10 PM

The problem isn’t so much the nuts and bolts, but the process behind it. Critics of the School Facilities Master Plan (SFMP) say that while they have specific worries regarding the current plan, their larger concern is the lack of communication from the Orleans Parish School Board and the state’s Recovery School District.

     Many of those closely following the plan’s progress aren’t aware of when the school board will vote on it and what exactly will be in the plan.  

     “What’s concerning to me is that until the original public comment period was about to end, these steps were not clearly articulated,” says Aesha Rasheed, executive director of the Parents Organizing Network, a nonprofit organization that works with parents to transform public schools.

     Rasheed is referring to the time period after the SFMP was made public (late August) and open to comment and October 17, the last day for public comments. The school board is scheduled to vote November 6 on the plan. Until Gambit Weekly contacted her, Rasheed, who has participated in many of the public meetings surrounding the SFMP, says she was unaware of what would happen to those public comments and when the school board would vote.

     Neither the OPSB Web site nor the SFMP Web site mentions the November 6 meeting.

     Thelma French, who works for OPSB and is a member of the master plan planning team, says that after the public comment time period ends, the planning team will classify the comments and transcripts from public hearings, according to school and school board district. The team will then give these materials to the OPSB for their review on October 21.

     At the November 6 meeting, state superintendent Paul Pastorek, OPSB superintendent Darryl Kilbert and RSD superintendent Paul Vallas will make recommendations to the school board regarding the SFMP.

     Celeste Lofton-Bagert, a member of the Neighbors of Morris Jeff School, a Mid-City group that has lobbied the planning team to make changes to the plan, says she’d like to know what those recommendations are before they are presented to the board.

     “Those recommendations will likely be part of what the school board votes on, so it would be nice to know what the new plan looks like,” Lofton-Bagert says.

     Superintendent Vallas thinks the planning process has already been more than sufficient.

     “There are some people — and a very small number of people who say we need more time for public input,” Vallas says. “First of all, there’s been more public input in this plan than just about anything I’ve ever been involved in. I mean, it’s been public input nauseam.” 

     Rasheed disputes this. In terms of public input prior to the publication of the SFMP, Rasheed says it mostly came in the form of ‘yes or no’ or ‘true or false’ questionnaires that planners then used as the community contribution to the plan. Rasheed thinks RSD and OPSB should have given the public more credit.

     “Trust that the community has wisdom,” Rasheed says.

      By passing SFMP, which requires approval by OPSB and the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), it only allows the district to start submitting individual school proposals to these respective boards. With this in mind, Vallas says it is critical for the school board to pass the plan on November 6.

     “Because the FEMA money might not be there if we wait too long,” Vallas says.

     Rasheed feels this sense of urgency puts the public in an unfair position. If the planners had articulated the process better and told people exactly how projects would progress, then, she says, Vallas wouldn’t have to play the money card. Rasheed isn’t convinced that the board has to approve the plan on November 6, but she does think the board should take action.

     “Not only should they consider the plan, but put in place a formal process of how this implementation works,” Rasheed says, adding, “It’s not just sending out a flyer and saying ‘we told everybody.’”



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