Pro-Tip: Don’t Confuse Mayor With Emperor LaToya Cantrell weighs-in on OneApp while trying to take money from public schools

UPDATE: 5/16/19A new fiscal note attached to Senate Bill 110 estimates that an increase in the City of New Orleans’ tax collection fee from 2% to 4% would cost the Orleans Parish School Board “an additional $8,600,000 beginning 2019-20 and increasing annually to $9,600,000 by 2023-24.”

On Friday, the Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s newly-established Office of Youth and Families issued a statement on OneApp, the system that families use to enroll their children in New Orleans public schools. The move was puzzling for a number of reasons.

The statement from the Mayor’s Office of Youth & Families on OneApp.

For one thing, Mayor Cantrell has no authority whatsoever over the school system, which is governed by the seven elected members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), an independent public body separate from the City of New Orleans.

Given that fact, the Mayor’s decision to officially weigh-in on OPSB’s enrollment process could understandably be viewed as both inappropriate and unhelpful, particularly from the standpoint of OPSB. (Can you imagine how the Mayor would react if, say, the Jefferson Parish Council issued a public appraisal of the Sewerage & Water Board?) Indeed, OPSB leaders spent much of last week trying to dissuade the Mayor’s office from issuing the statement. Sources with knowledge of those discussions say that the Mayor’s team solicited feedback on various drafts of their press release, but refused requests to nix it altogether.

What did the Cantrell Administration have to say that was so profoundly important that it was necessary to press on over the objections of OPSB? Not a whole hell of a lot. The 380-word press release issued on Friday is heavy on platitudes, devoid of real substance, and dripping with condescension.

Emily Wolff speaks at the official unveiling of one of the Office of Youth & Families’ “major” initiatives: a new meditation room in City Hall (?).

Consider, for example, this quote attributed to Emily Wolff, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, which serves as the centerpiece of the statement:

“We need to double-down on working to create more high-quality seats for all of our city’s children. I urge the OPSB, policy leaders and educators to work to adapt best practices to more schools and better communicate with families about the diverse array of school choices available to them.”

Create more high-quality school options? Employ best practices? Communicate with families? My god, what revolutionary ideas!

Apparently, the Mayor and her staff believe the city’s education policymakers, school leaders, and teachers have been aimlessly scratching around in the dirt for the past fifteen years. Perhaps she hadn’t heard that the post-Katrina New Orleans school system improved faster than any other school district in the country. Maybe Mayor Cantrell also missed the release of a new study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, which found that New Orleans schools are outperforming the state on academic growth.

Graphic from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford.

In spite of this progress, she would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local education community who doesn’t recognize that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to improving schools. In just the past few months, OPSB Supt. Henderson Lewis announced that four low-performing schools would be closing at the end of the school year. It’s hard to comprehend how the Mayor could look at that and draw the conclusion that the district is resting on its laurels.

If the Cantrell Administration is really serious about “working to ensure the system works better,” it can start by staying out of the schools district’s affairs. There are plenty of issues within the Mayor’s purview that need to be addressed, such as the recent spike in juvenile violent crime, the dearth of after-school programming for New Orleans youth, or the fact that public schools often have to close due to problems arising from the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

Tackling these challenges would be a vastly more helpful than admonishing – and by extension, insulting – the education professionals who are working to improve our city’s schools every day.

Oh, one more thing…

Do you want to know what’s even more insulting? While Mayor Cantrell is insisting the district “double-down” to expand high-quality schools, she’s surreptitiously trying to seize a bigger chunk of OPSB’s tax revenues.

Under current state law, the City of New Orleans is responsible for collecting property and sales taxes in the parish. The city then gives the Orleans Parish School Board its share of the money minus a 2% fee, which is intended to cover the costs incurred by the city to collect the taxes. However, Mayor Cantrell is aiming to increase that fee and has enlisted her dear friend, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, to get the law changed.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (left) shares a laugh with Mayor Cantrell (right), former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Councilperson Helena Moreno.

Senate Bill 110, which was filed by Peterson in March and is currently awaiting a final vote in the Louisiana House, would revise the law to allow the City of New Orleans to raise its collection fee from 2% to 4%. An extra 2% might not sound like much, but consider that OPSB’s gross tax revenues in F.Y. 2018 were $169.3 million. If OPSB had been charged a 4% collection fee, $6.8 million in school funds would have been siphoned off into the city’s general fund. In fact, if S.B. 110 becomes law, it’s estimated that schools could end up losing $75 for every student they serve.

That isn’t pocket change and it’s not hard to imagine that school leaders, parents, and other community members might take issue with the fee hike. That may explain why the Cantrell Administration hasn’t exactly advertised the fact they’re gunning for a bigger slice of the tax pie. While the Mayor has been candid about the city’s need to raise revenue, and has offered several possible options toward that end, their proposal to increase the tax collection fee has been left unmentioned. Moreover, sources say that the Mayor’s office didn’t even give OPSB a courtesy heads-up about their plan to pursue a fee hike in the legislature. Instead, district officials only found out about the bill last week, after it had already cleared the Senate and was working its way through the House.

As Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out in an op-ed hilariously entitled, “Mayor Cantrell, apparently serious, boasts of her transparency,” the Mayor “gives the public information on a need-to-know basis, and generally governs as if we never do.” It seems she’s using the same approach in her dealings with the Orleans Parish School Board. Even though the Cantrell Administration insists its “committed to working with OPSB,” when the Mayor interferes in the district’s affairs and tries to seize millions in OPSB funds, it looks a lot more like she’s working against it.

Maybe it’s time for folks in the #CityOfYes to send a message to the Mayor: When it comes to our public schools, she should #JustSayNo.

Read Senate Bill 110:

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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