School facilities oversight panel meets after long gap

The Master Plan Oversight Committee — which is supposed to meet quarterly to make sure all public school facility projects are on time and on budget — held its first official meeting in more than a year and half Thursday night.

The committee, which was formed in 2009, is charged with monitoring the spending of $1.8 billion in FEMA money designated for rebuilding the city’s schools as laid out in the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish. The plan was written in 2008 and last amended in 2010.

Every member resigned in November 2011 after reaching their two-year term limit. The entire new board was not approved until March.

Although an informal meeting was held in September, there was not a quorum, as new members had not been nominated at that time.

The committee is designed to include members with expertise in building, construction management and finance, with each nominated by designated entities. The nominees have to be approved by the Orleans Parish School Board and the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education.

BESE approved Alexandra Stroud, director of the Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development Program at the Tulane University School of Architecture in October. Stroud was nominated by the universities. Also approved was Andre Perry, the associate director for Educational Initiatives for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. Perry was nominated by the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

BESE approved CPA Jim Alack, nominated by the local chapter of the American Institute of Public Accountants, in February and Realtor Michael Siegel, nominated by the New Orleans Business Council.

Nolan Marshall represents the OPSB on the committee and Kira Orange Jones represents BESE.

Thursday’s gathering was more of a “meet and greet” than a regular meeting with discussion related to the role and responsibilities of the committee.

In the complicated educational landscape that consists of more than 40 autonomous districts under three different governing boards, new committee members asked about who has the power to make decisions, who controls the money and which entities bear responsibility and ownership of the facilities.

The new committee members were introduced to numerous Recovery School District and OPSB officials and were given thick binders packed with detailed information — which is updated monthly — about all public school facility projects completed, underway and planned in the parish.

OPSB Interim Superintendent Stan Smith also discussed the continual effort to match school facilities to demographics. The latest projections show that the student count is on the high side, Smith said, and speculated it could be due to students shifting from private to public schools due to improving schools or the struggling economy.

When Marshall opened the meeting to public comment, education activist Eric Jones expressed concern that all board members were new and the committee had not met in a long time.

“There’s billions of dollars being spent, and no is holding anyone accountable,” Jones said. “When a committee member asks a question about what their role is, that is very scary to me.”

Jones asked the new members to read the Master Plan and amendments thoroughly.

The Rev. Raynard Cassimere expressed concern about money for facilities being given to failing schools. “The RSD has clearly failed,” he said, pointing to the schools’ state-calculated School Performance Scores. The RSD took over a majority of the city’s schools labeled as failing more than seven years ago, but last year’s scores show that out of 68 RSD schools, 31 received an F letter grade and 18 received a D. Cassimere urged that the OPSB and the new committee be more hard-nosed on holding the RSD accountable.

OPSB Interim Superintendent Stan Smith said after the meeting that the 2012 School Board election played a part in the delay in getting a new board going, as well as the nomination and approval process. According to the Master Plan, the OPSB and the RSD are responsible for staffing the committee.

Smith said the primary roles of the committee are to advise the boards, to monitor the projects and make sure they stay on track, and to ensure transparency.