Public education is a cornerstone of south Louisiana's recovery. Returning and newly arrived families expect and deserve high-performing public schools in each rebounding neighborhood. The School Facilities Master Plan, scheduled to be completed next month, encompasses all of the city's public schools " those in the Recovery School District, charters and Orleans Parish School Board-run schools " and will spark additional redevelopment when the plan goes into action and new schools are built.
Renewing these four existing millages, each of which is crucial, will help sustain and build upon post-Katrina gains. By voting to keep these existing property tax millages in place, voters will ensure that a portion of their property taxes will be dedicated to specific academic purposes and will benefit all public school students. We stress that a vote for the renewals will not raise taxes; it will merely keep existing, needed taxes in place.
An examination of the four propositions underscores the need for each:
Purpose A sets aside 1.55 mills for 10 years to purchase textbooks, library books, instructional materials and school supplies. No matter how talented a teacher is, kids can't learn without books " books that each child can take home. The cost of books has skyrocketed in the past decade, and instructional materials for today's classrooms include personal computers, computer notebooks and software programs.
Purpose B dedicates 1.55 mills for 10 years to early childhood education, discipline improvement and dropout prevention programs. Numerous studies show that kids who start school as pre-kindergarten students achieve better results than those who start later. Getting kids in school early means keeping them off the streets and out of jail later.
Purpose C dedicates 7.27 mills for 10 years to salaries, employee benefits and productivity incentives for public school employees. Since Katrina, many young teachers from programs such as Teach For America have volunteered to come to New Orleans. They did it so they could make a difference in children's lives. To keep these enthusiastic, hard-working teachers, each of us needs to commit to paying them competitive salaries.
Purpose D authorizes 2.32 mills for 20 years to be used for facility maintenance, improvement and repairs. As everyone knows, New Orleans' public schools were in serious disrepair before Katrina, and FEMA won't make everything new in the storm's wake. As noted in a recent report by the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), the estimated cost to repair and replace damaged schools totals $1.8 billion. FEMA is expected to cover less than half that amount.
Taken as a whole, the four propositions add up to about $1,000 per public school student. For the individual homeowner, the cost is far less. An owner of a $200,000 house will pay about $158 a year for all four millages combined. Again, even if all four propositions pass, property taxes will not increase. If the millages fail, taxes will go down " but the school board still has the legal option to increase the system's 'general purpose" millage without voter approval. In that case, according to BGR, the owner of the $200,000 house would see an annual savings of only $64. Meanwhile, the cost to the system " and to the students " will be enormous, and New Orleans will pay a much steeper price down the road.
Kathy Riedlinger, principal and CEO of Lusher Charter School, says the combined effect of the four millages is more than 10 percent of her school's budget. Without these propositions, Riedlinger says, she will be forced to make cuts in areas such as textbooks and special programs. Worse, defeat of the millage renewals would signal a loss of public support for a key component of New Orleans' recovery. 'Education is in the front seat," Riedlinger says, 'and it needs to stay in the front seat."
We couldn't agree more. Many local organizations are supporting the renewals, including Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, the Business Council of New Orleans, the Urban League and BGR. We happily add our voice to that chorus.
We urge all our readers in New Orleans to heed this call. Get out and vote for each of these vital propositions on Saturday. The quality of our public schools serves as both a mirror of our city's current state and as a crystal ball foretelling New Orleans' future. Let's make sure that our image reflects a place that is concerned for its children.