TOPICS > Education

New Orleans Schools Before and After Katrina

November 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JOHN MERROW: Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans on Aug. 28. One day later the levees broke and most of the city ended up under water. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and the New Orleans public school system was destroyed.

Of New Orleans 126 public schools, only 16 emerged relatively unscathed. Others, like Hynes Elementary School, were under five feet of water for days. Hynes, once home to 840 students and 65 teachers, will probably have to be torn down. Early estimates suggest that many of the city’s schools will have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: This is the O. Perry Walker Auditorium, which has significant roof damage with the roof torn off.

JOHN MERROW: But even before Katrina hit, the New Orleans schools were falling apart. Most buildings were more than 50 years old; some more than 100.

JIMMY FAHRENHOLTZ: You have to realize that we are a very, very old city and we had some very old schools. And before Katrina we had probably 50 to 60 schools that should have been torn down.

JOHN MERROW: Jimmy Fahrenholtz is [a member] of the New Orleans school board.

JIMMY FAHRENHOLTZ: I’ve been asking people to give us some money to rebuild our system for three years. I told them it’s a shame, it’s a crime that we’re sending kids into buildings that should be condemned.

JOHN MERROW: It had other problems besides decrepit buildings. New Orleans, the nation’s 50th largest public school system with nearly 60,000 students, had earned a reputation for incompetence and dishonesty.

JIMMY FAHRENHOLTZ: Fraud, corruption, contract scams, flat-out theft, people walking out with laptops, anything you can imagine. Any way you could steal they were doing it.

JOHN MERROW: Since 2002, there have been 24 indictments against school employees. $71 million in federal money was unaccounted for, and there were other problems. Academically, New Orleans was one of the worst public school systems in the country. 70 percent of the eighth graders were not proficient in math, 74 percent in English. Under pressure from the state because of the academic performance and in danger of going bankrupt, the school board acted. It hired a company that specializes in turning around failing organizations. They arrived in New Orleans in July.

JOHN MERROW: What did you find?

BILL ROBERTI: Just years and years and years of abuse, and of people just doing what they wanted to do. I mean there was — there was no discipline.

JOHN MERROW: Bill Roberti and Sajan George lead the turnaround team from the New York firm of Alvarez and Marsal. They were shocked by what they found.

SAJAN GEORGE: We had a person that has been on paid leave for 35 years. I joked with somebody. Do we send them, you know, like a silver anniversary card? Thank you for 35 years of non- service?

We had documented cases of people that were putting in 50 hours of overtime a week, 50 hours a week, every week of the year, including Christmas.

BILL ROBERTI: They were getting more money in their stipends then they were getting in their basic paychecks. There was $22 million worth of stipends paid out of the New Orleans public school system last year.

JOHN MERROW: Before the hurricane, things had begun to change. Roberti and George had started to restructure the district’s finances, initiating a plan to trim $48 million from its roughly $500 million budget. They also made sure that opening day of school, august 18, was the smoothest in years.

SAJAN GEORGE: You got to understand that, you know, in prior years, school openings required parents to bring toilet paper with their kids, because the bathrooms weren’t stocked. And we said, “By God, every school’s going to be ready.” And we had every single school cleaned, ready and stocked even with toilet paper.

JOHN MERROW: Ten days later, Katrina hit. Katrina not only flooded the schools, but also the central office, where the basic financial and management records — now accurate for the first time in years — were stored on computer disks.

Roberti and George had to rescue those files even though the city was locked down.

BILL ROBERTI: We got through all of the checkpoints, and the first thing we did was we started looking for police. I wasn’t going in the school until I knew police officers knew we were there, because I didn’t want somebody shooting at us. And we did finally convince a tactical police unit, six officers, to come in with us.

JOHN MERROW: Once they rescued the files, they arranged to pay the nearly 4,000 teachers for their time served before the hurricane. But that was it. Immediately after the storm, the school board put everyone on “disaster leave,” and advised teachers to look for jobs elsewhere. At the school board’s frequent meetings, members discuss what the next steps ought to be.

WOMAN AT MEETING: You might want to consider advertising in some of the other cities where your displaced parents, students and teachers are. Some people just don’t know, and that’s why they haven’t called back to enroll their children.

JOHN MERROW: Do you see yourself as, in effect, starting from scratch?

BILL ROBERTI: Yes. A clean sheet of paper, in effect.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: See, there’s a lot of damage. And we’ve been telling contractors to replace this tile but it’s a massive scaffolding.

JOHN MERROW: It’s a monumental job.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: Let’s go into the auditorium.

JOHN MERROW: Members of the Alvarez & Marsal team, and local school officials, are evaluating the damaged schools one building at a time.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: Here is the mold. You can see by your head. We would like to hire a firm to come in and assess the situation from an environmental standpoint.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: We’ve still got several feet of water down here in front of the stage, and water all up on top the stage.

JOHN MERROW: What do you have to do between now and sometime in November to get some schools open?

SAJAN GEORGE: Wow, what don’t we have to do? We’ve been submitted bids to get repair work done, select the bidders. Once you get the schools repaired, you need to get EPA clearance. They’ve got to do mold testings throughout the schools. We’re not going to let any kids come into any schools that are not deemed safe. We’ve got to contract bussing services. We’ve got to look into temporary housing. You know, a lot of the employees who want to come back don’t have houses to come in to. We’ve got to get food into the schools. Our cafeterias are wiped out. You got to clean the schools. You got to get textbooks and supplies. You got to get the configure… the grade configurations right. You’ve got to get classes set up, curriculum. And then last but not least, we got to get the money to pay for all this.

JOHN MERROW: George Roberti and the New Orleans school officials hope to open eight schools sometime in November.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: This is all high ground. These schools have not been flooded. They have electricity back in all of these areas — running water back in all these areas.

JOHN MERROW: No one knows how much it will cost to rebuild the school system. While FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covers 100 percent of the emergency damage, it is responsible for only 75 percent of the long-term costs. Louisiana politicians want FEMA to pay the entire tab. But what will they build? Interim superintendent Ora Watson says no idea is too radical.

DR. ORA WATSON: I think the sky is the limit. We have to do some real out-of-the-box thinking. And I’ve already, with some support from other people, have asked that we have some of the best minds from across the country to come in and help us with new thinking.

JOHN MERROW: But will the old ways that gave New Orleans schools such a bad reputation reemerge?

JIMMY FAHRENHOLTZ: I don’t think you are going to see it, the “old okey doke,” as a friend of mine used to say. Some of those people aren’t coming back. The light’s on them; they can’t do the things they used to do with the kind of oversight that we have now.

WOMAN: We’re excited, we’re energetic; we’re ready to tote boxes. We’re ready to clean off desktops. We are ready to do what’s necessary to assist the board.

JOHN MERROW: New thinking is already in abundance. Some want cash vouchers that students could use to pay tuition at private or parochial schools; others want a totally decentralized system. Brenda Mitchell is president of the teachers union.

BRENDA MITCHELL: We should have… make sure that there’s a level playing field for education. There shouldn’t be a school in one part of the city of New Orleans that has everything it needs, and then another where the window sills are falling apart. There shouldn’t be a place where there are highly qualified and certified teachers in one school, but not in another.

JOHN MERROW: It’s not clear how many of the 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers even want to come back. Steve Ritea reports on education for the Times-Picayune.

STEVE RITEA: There’s a map that a lot of publications have published recently that shows people from the New Orleans area evacuated to places as far flung as Alaska and Hawaii. How many people come back is also going to be determined by how well this first opening of schools comes off, and which schools are ultimately able to be opened, and then how fast they can be rebuilt. So that’s going to be the real question.

JOHN MERROW: But teachers and schools won’t be needed unless families with children return to the city. Today, New Orleans is virtually childless.

SAGAN GEORGE: The school system will have a major influence on whether this is a childless city. A lot of these kids are in good school systems in other cities. Why would they pull them out of that? But if you start building a school system that will make a difference and that is not only a good New Orleans system, good school system, but good system for the country, we won’t be childless.

JOHN MERROW: If you build it, they will come?

BILL ROBERTI: We believe that’s right.

SAJAN GEORGE: That’s right.

JOHN MERROW: The two high schools and six elementary/middle schools that New Orleans hopes to open in November have the capacity to hold 7,000 students. As of now, officials are expecting around 3,000 to return. The pressure to get schools open is enormous; according to the Louisiana State Department of Education, as many as 20,000 displaced New Orleans students are not attending school anywhere.

JIM LEHRER: A postscript to John’s report: Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said today she now wants the state to take over the city’s public schools. It comes after the New Orleans school board voted to open the first group of schools as charter schools, making them eligible for more federal funding. John will continue to follow the story in the months ahead.