Coalition questions school tax campaign

NEW ORLEANS -- Early voting starts in two days, and in Orleans Parish you get to decide on whether or not to pass a school maintenance tax proposition.

Now a coalition of community groups has filed a lawsuit claiming school officials are illegally campaigning in favor of the tax using public school money and property.

The "Our students. Our schools" signs are prominently displayed on school campuses across Orleans Parish.

A cluster of smiling kids flashing the thumbs up sign hoping to win voter support for a school maintenance tax proposition.

"First of all, it's illegal to use public property to push a particular political perspective. Secondly, the public simply doesn't know all there is to this particular proposition," said Rev. Dwight Webster. He's part of a coalition of religious, community, youth, business, and civil rights organizations calling itself "Justice and Beyond" which is questioning those campaign techniques.

The group is asking why school officials are using public school property and funds to promote the tax proposition.

"The public is being snookered, it's being bamboozled, it's being run amuck," Webster said.

An attorney representing the coalition says a lawsuit was filed seeking an injunction to prevent the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Charter School Association from placing political signs on public buildings. The lawsuit is also attempting to stop school public officials from urging citizens to vote yes on the proposition.

Opponents of the proposition claim it gives the Recovery School District too much power and offers little transparency on how millions of dollars would be spent.

"There is plenty of time to do what we need for our children. We need to do the best. We have to have the facilities that will make a difference. We have to have it managed well," Webster said.

The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) says when current construction bond debt is paid off, an estimated $15 million is expected to be raised per year for public school facility maintenance.

"We've invested billions of dollars in rebuilding public schools. Renovating them, remodeling, refurbishing. It would be a disaster to not invest money and keep these schools in working order," said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

Supporters of the proposition include BGR, the Urban League of New Orleans, Stand for Children, Black Alliance for Educational Options and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans. If passed, Leger says current taxes that pay for bonds will be repurposed to help pay for school maintenance through 2025.

Leger adds how those tax dollars are used will be clearly defined.

"The dollars are designated and a locked away. Only to be used for maintenance, emergency repairs, and capital improvements to these facilities," Leger said.

Attorney Willie Zanders, who is representing the Justice and Beyond coalition, tells Eyewitness News the lawsuit filed seeking an injunction on behalf of his client will be heard on Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 10:00 a.m. in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

The Recovery School District issued this statement:

"RSD and OPSB have not been served with a lawsuit concerning this matter. As with previous millage elections, RSD and OPSB schools are providing factual information to the citizens of New Orleans about the upcoming December 6th ballot proposition. This information is intended to ensure voters in our city are able to make an informed decision about this millage."


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