January 18, 2006
Plan Shifts Power to New Orleans Schools
By ADAM NOSSITER
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 17 - Vowing to further change an education system already transformed by Hurricane Katrina, a mayoral committee set out a plan on Tuesday to decentralize this city's troubled schools.
The plan, one of a series proposing to change various aspects of life in posthurricane New Orleans, recommends shifting power to individual schools from the much-discredited central school administration. Control over budgets and hiring and firing would shift to principals.
The proposal was made by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, appointed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin last year to develop a blueprint for reconstruction. To be enacted, the plan would require the approval of the mayor, the governor and top state education officials.
The plan presented Tuesday calls for a "lean district office," a proposal welcomed by one school board member, Una Anderson, who has often called for structural changes in the school system.
"Having most of the budgeting decisions at the school site and hiring and firing by the principal is a good start," Ms. Anderson said. "Over all, I think it offers a lot of promise. It decentralizes."
In addition, the overhaul plan calls for a systemwide pre-kindergarten program and freedom of choice for parents.
Improving this city's schools, considered by some experts to be among the worst in the nation before Hurricane Katrina, has been deemed vital to reconstruction.
In the years immediately before the storm, a bloated school administration had lost or squandered millions in federal money, according to audits. Dozens of school employees had been indicted or convicted in corruption cases, and a high percentage of schools were considered failing. The corruption problem was so bad that the F.B.I. had established a field office in the central administration building.
After the storm, with the system in disarray and school board leaders expressing uncertainty about opening any schools during this academic year, state officials largely took over the public schools. They seized control of all but about 15 of the system's 117 schools; of the balance, some are operating as charter schools, and the school board has opened only three.
In all, some 17 schools, with 9,000 students, have reopened in Orleans Parish.
In one significant area, though, the commission apparently backed away from a proposal that was considered during its deliberations, one that would have caused a stir here: creating an appointed, rather than elected, school board.
But Jimmy Fahrenholtz, a school board member who was often at odds with the majority and who was present at Tuesday's commission meeting, said he would welcome a further diminution of the board's powers.
"They need to take control of us," Mr. Fahrenholtz said. "We don't need to exist anymore."