New Orleans Weighs Options for Rebuilding Schools

Hurricane Katrina dealt a knockout blow to New Orleans' public schools, which were already in poor condition. Now, city officials are tasked with rebuilding schools, or handing over many to private ownership.

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The countless decisions faced by citizens of New Orleans include what to do about the public schools after Hurricane Katrina. District officials initially canceled the entire school year. Now they realize that, if they wait, many of the city's 116 schools could end up as privately run charter schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

New Orleans school superintendent Ora Watson has a warning for anyone who cares to listen. Politicians, private organizations and even some parents want to dismantle the city's public school system piece by piece.

Ms. ORA WATSON (New Orleans School Superintendent): And I'm saying that because right now there are so many different agendas. The mayor has decided that the city can run 20 schools under a charter. We have individual schools going to individual groups, say, `Would you charter me?' They're picking the school district apart. This is a real, real frustration.

SANCHEZ: Speaking to fellow superintendents in Atlanta recently, Watson said New Orleans could be the first urban school system in America to be taken over by special interest groups. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has already signed an executive order removing all restrictions under which public schools can become charter schools. Even the Bush administration is offering the district more money on the condition that more schools be chartered, says Watson.

Ms. WATSON: The federal government has said, `If you create more charters, we'll give you $2,000 more per student.' Some people have said, `Wow, that's great.' But are more charters what we need?

SANCHEZ: Some say, yes, absolutely. Special interest groups can't possibly do a worse job than the people who've run the system into the ground.

Ms. PATTY CARBAHOL(ph) (Teacher): I worked in the Orleans Parish public schools for 15 years. The school system is a serious problem.

SANCHEZ: Like many teachers in the system, Patty Carbahol says she knew better than to send her son to a public school in the city.

Ms. CARBAHOL: I have seen, since the '80s, the school system go down and down and down. But this is one way to start over.

SANCHEZ: It's no secret, of course, that before Katrina, New Orleans schools were in academic and financial disarray. So much so that the state had hired a New York City management company to put the district's books in order.

Mr. BILL ROBERTI (Alvarez & Marsal): No, there isn't enough money right now. This school system was financially compromised pre-Katrina.

SANCHEZ: Bill Roberti is with the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. He says the district today is facing a $132 million shortfall. That does not include the staggering costs of restoring damaged buildings or replacing the district's bus fleet. But with or without charter schools in the picture, Roberti says, he's not giving up on New Orleans' public schools.

Mr. ROBERTI: Here's a golden opportunity to create a New Orleans public school system for the 21st century with whatever money we have. And I don't think that's a daunting task at all. And if we're gonna build it back, why would you want it built back the way it was?

SANCHEZ: Excellent teachers, small high schools, smaller classes, top-notch principals, cutting-edge technology--this is what it's going to take, says superintendent Ora Watson.

Ms. WATSON: You know, we're gonna set up schools. We're gonna have schools. We're gonna provide education but we also have to determine to whom will it belong.

SANCHEZ: On November 14th, Watson and a skeleton crew of administrators plan to open four schools in the West Bank Algiers section of the city. But with so many families still scattered, nobody knows how many of the district's 53,000 students will return. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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