Saturday, February 03, 2007

Education is Key

First, I meant to make mention of this when I read about earlier this week. While I may not always agree with the Catholic Church, I do think that Fr. William Maestri is a nice person who believes that he is doing the right thing. Politics aside, it was compassionate and understanding for him to offer to accept children who were "wait-listed." It was obviously a political move to help him get vouchers back into the discussion, but I am not opposed to educational vouchers. The Catholic School System in New Orleans works. The Public School System doesn't, even when run by the state. Is it wrong for Maestri to want to offer a better education to children? I don't think so. Especially when he knows how bad the alternative is and the results of 30+ years of negligence and abuse. I am sad to see him step down, but he has done good.

As a repository for New Orleans' School stuff, I will start with this article (from the T-P), posted in its entirety because I can't believe this has happened (I can believe it because it's New Orleans, but I can't accept that this is reality. Ok, I can accept it as reality because it's New Orleans, but how is this possibly ok?

BATON ROUGE -- After a visit Nov. 20 to the state-run Recovery School District headquarters in New Orleans, a member of the House Education Committee wrote Gov. Kathleen Blanco asking her to sign an executive order granting the district the same fast-track administrative authority given to the Superdome for its rebuilding effort.

As of Friday, Rep. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, still hadn't heard back from the governor or her staff. His plea was similar to other unheeded requests to the governor's office that district Superintendent Robin Jarvis revealed in legislative testimony this week.

Crowe's letter 10 weeks ago contrasts with Wednesday's testimony from the governor's top aides, who told a Senate committee they were unaware the Recovery School District was in need of special rules to speed purchasing and contracting procedures that have hindered the massive rebuilding effort and forced the district to put hundreds of students on waiting lists because of a lack of facilities.

"I am concerned that there is much criticism about the priorities in this state, and it appears that education has been placed second to entertainment," Crowe said in his letter. "Please strongly consider my request so that in January, more students will be able to return to school."

The issue erupted this week when Jarvis told the Senate Local & Municipal Affairs Committee that the state superintendent of education had asked the governor last spring to grant the district special powers of procurement and contracting. The state-run district, which is trying to repair and reopen schools while operating others, is hampered because state rules require more time and bidding than the rules used by local school systems, she said.

Jarvis said the district wanted to use the kind of streamlined contracting process that the governor granted with executive orders in late 2005 for rebuilding the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In particular, she was worried that the slower contracting system would stall the erection of modular classrooms needed to accommodate larger enrollments in the next school year.

News to them

Hauled into the hearing Wednesday on short notice, Blanco Chief of Staff Jimmy Clarke and chief counsel Terry Ryder said they knew of no request for an executive order or other action necessary to speed the process. By the end of the day, they delegated authority to a state Department of Education official who will monitor the district's purchasing and contracting requests on a case-by-case basis and apply emergency status when necessary, Clarke said.

That system can be conducted under current state law without an executive order, Clarke said.

But the new procedure does not rely on emergency designations to fast-track projects, according to Beth Scioneaux, acting deputy superintendent for finance at the Education Department.

The new method simply cuts out review by either the Office of State Purchasing or the Office of Contractual Review, which accounts for about 20 percent of the bureaucratic process, she said.

"We still have to follow all the regular procurement system," Scioneaux said.

The education agency can designate a purchase or a contract as an emergency, she said, but that would be used only in a "real emergency," such as if the safety of a child or public health were at stake.

"We don't envision having to invoke that," Scioneaux said.

Governor responds

Blanco said Friday that when the district's purchasing problems came to her attention last spring, her administration reviewed the procurement code and determined that it allowed for expedited processes, and therefore an executive order was unnecessary. In meetings with the governor in the fall, Jarvis did not say the system was inadequate, Blanco said.

Executive orders suspending state law were more appropriate for the Dome and Convention Center because those were two large buildings that could be treated as single projects, whereas the Recovery District is pursuing a large number of separate projects, each with its own set of repair requirements, Blanco said.

Blanco said she has told administration officials that if the district wants more help and flexibility, it should get it.

"We'll call every day," Blanco said.

New administration

Following legislation pushed by Blanco in November 2005, the Recovery School District took over the vast majority of schools from the Orleans Parish public school system. It faces the challenge of repairing seriously damaged buildings, restocking supplies and hiring teachers while student enrollment swells at levels that are hard to predict.

Crowe supported Blanco's move to a state-run school district in New Orleans and in his letter said Jarvis and her staff were doing "a tremendous job given the challenges they face daily."

He said Friday that in his role as an education committee member, he made a surprise visit for a couple of hours to the Recovery School District in November. The "glaring issue" was that the school district needed to quicken the pace of administrative procedures, and so the next day he wrote the one-page letter to Blanco.

"I am writing to request an executive order that will allow for the expeditious process of all administrative procedures within the Recovery School District not unlike the processes utilized in opening the Superdome for the first Saints home game against Atlanta," Crowe's letter said.

Clarke visited the district and toured schools with Jarvis on Jan. 25, but said he did not come away with the same sense of urgency about the need for administrative changes. He said during the testimony Wednesday that he was under the impression that the district's process was up to the task.

"They just big-time dropped the ball," Crowe said.

Speaking to Clarke and Ryder at Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, said part of the problem is that decision makers who live in Baton Rouge don't feel the urgency or appreciate the challenges of New Orleans' recovery.

"You don't live in this problem, we do," Shepherd told them.

Takeover under fire

Catching the administration apparently flat-footed, opponents of the state takeover are using the issue to bolster their criticism of Blanco's move to pull the schools away from local control.

Louella Givens, a critic of the state takeover who represents New Orleans on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Friday that she has been sounding the alarm without getting a response.

"I have asked repeatedly that methods be investigated to get the Recovery School District out of the state procurement process," Givens said. "I've said it over and over at BESE, every chance I get."

But Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Penny Dastugue, who represents Jefferson Parish and the north shore, provided a different view.

"As a board, it had really not been brought to us," Dastugue said Friday.

Jarvis had not brought the issue to the board's attention until its January meeting, she said.

"It represents her frustration at this point, because she is the one taking this criticism," Dastugue said. "I just think she hit the end, hit the wall."

Dastugue said further meetings on the issue with education officials took place Thursday.

"I believe there's a concerted effort to work through this logjam," Dastugue said.

Crowe said the district's recovery will take years, so there is still ample time for administrative changes to have a big impact.

"We need to knock down any and every barrier, and look ahead a little bit," Crowe said. "The governor has that in her power."

No comments: