Louisiana Schools Strapped Even Before Katrina

Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' public schools faced teacher shortages, crumbling schools and deficient supplies. Steve Inskeep speaks with Bill Roberti, chief turnaround officer at the crisis management firm Alvarez & Marsal. Roberti was handling the problems in the Louisiana schools before the hurricane struck.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' public school system was in crisis. Chronic teacher shortages, crumbling schools, a lack of supplies contributed to some of the worst student test scores in this country. Things were so bad that in July, Louisiana officials handed operations to a crisis management firm, Alvarez & Marsal. Company executive Bill Roberti became the school district's chief restructuring officer, and now his task is even bigger than he could have imagined: rebuilding the entire New Orleans school system from the ground up. He joins us now from our studios in New York.

Welcome to you.

Mr. BILL ROBERTI (Executive, Alvarez & Marsal): Good morning.

INSKEEP: So when you've been in the city of New Orleans inside the schools, what have you seen?

Mr. ROBERTI: We saw devastation, you know, power lines down, church steeples turned over, and we're trying to determine how many schools we can, in fact, get opened. You look at New Orleans East in the Lower Ninth Ward, and certainly part of northern New Orleans, the area that's just above the Quarter, those areas in many cases are still under water, and I would say 65 to 70 percent of our schools are under water.

INSKEEP: Before the flood, were New Orleans schools already in danger of losing federal funding under the No Child Left Behind Act?

Mr. ROBERTI: One of the reasons we were brought in, there was an audit done and significant questions around how $71 million of federal funds were spent without proper documentation. Certainly there are several schools that are at risk right now that had low performance from an education perspective, but it was our job and still is our job to align these schools from a cost and operating perspective so that the educators can come in and get on with the main event.

INSKEEP: Are there any benefits to the fact that there has been this disaster and now there's a lot of focus on the schools, a lot of money coming in and perhaps an opportunity to start things over again, start fresh?

Mr. ROBERTI: There's always a silver lining in every disaster. And in this particular case, the silver lining is the ability to build a New Orleans public school system for Katrina's kids that will be state of the art and will be the school system of the 21st century for New Orleans.

INSKEEP: Although, as you point out, even before this disaster, it was a system that wasn't paying its own way.

Mr. ROBERTI: That's correct. You know, this was a system that at one point had close to 85,000 students. I think that last year we were at 64,000. This year just prior to the storm, we were at 55,000. I think we're going to have to see where this thing levels out, but there's certainly going to be an opportunity to consolidate and to build better schools. And this system needs to bring around it some of the best talented educators in this country to help pull this off.

INSKEEP: Is this semester finished as far as you're concerned?

Mr. ROBERTI: Not necessarily. Our first assessment was maybe New Orleans public school system wouldn't have any schools open this year. Now we're looking at certainly January as a real possibility. So we fully intend in the next week to 10 days to two weeks to lay out a complete plan of when, in fact, we can open schools.

INSKEEP: Bill Roberti is the chief restructuring officer for the New Orleans school district.

Thanks very much.

Mr. ROBERTI: You're welcome.

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