NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed new school bus regulations Thursday, seizing control of a process that used to be handled by the Orleans Parish School Board, but had become decentralized and out-of-control with the rise of independent charter schools.
There are 90 independent charter schools in the New Orleans area, 78 of them in New Orleans. They are run by 52 different charter management organizations, which essentially act as separate school boards and have total control over contracts with their vendors. Seventy schools have contracts with 18 different private school bus companies for primary home-to-school transportation for their students.
Some of the school operators are new to providing school buses, some aren’t. But few know how to manage their transportation contracts.
“Educators are really good at educating. They are not really all that great all the time at logistics and business and the legal side of having this done,” City Councilman Joe Giarrusso said.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell had been concerned about the issue when she was on the City Council and directed her permit office to look into charter school buses at the start of this school year, her first as mayor. Led by Jennifer Cecil, head of the city’s One Stop Shop for permits and code enforcement, the team found dozens of major parking and safety violations.
“We understand charters are in a tough situation being able to afford their operating budget, but one place we are not OK with any school cutting corners on the safety of the bus contractors they work with," Cecil said.
In December, our “Taken for a Ride” investigation found bus provider Scholars First moving 60 buses from neighborhood streets to this grass field in New Orleans East, where they promptly got stuck in the mud.
Scholars First also has a lot at the corner of North Robertson and Columbus, in the Seventh Ward. There are about two dozen buses inside the fenced lot, but also parked on the street, including one that doesn’t even have headlights. On Thursday, it had a beer bottle inside of it, next to torn seats, and several windows were cracked or blown out.
Seventh Ward resident Seven McCarthy said it’s not only a nuisance, but a danger.
“After school they’ll park them three-deep down the road so that you can’t see when pulling up to busy North Robertson Street on the cross street, Columbus," McCarthy said. “We have to pull out far enough to see past the school buses. By the time we’re far enough to see, if someone’s flying down that road, we’re pegged.”
Randy McKee, an attorney representing Scholars First, said the company has been leasing the lot for about two years. McKee said Scholars First officials recently met with the city and learned the lot was recently rezoned and the buses are not allowed to be parked there.
"Upon learning this information, Scholars First has been actively securing another property to park its buses," McKee said Thursday.
Residents have been complaining about conditions like these all over town, but the city hasn’t had the power to stop it.
“Between our code enforcement officers and the inspectors in Safety and Permits, we have eyes all over the city every day, but we haven’t had authority to take action,” Cecil said.
Now, with the city ordinance that passed unanimously Thursday, they can.
“We’re now in a state where a zoning inspector can take action against a CPNC holder for illegal parking, or tearing up a lot, like you had featured on your last story," Cecil said.
“This means subjecting drivers to standard background checks and drug tests like any other CPNC holder, and annual vehicle inspections to make sure the buses are in proper working order,” City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said while sponsoring the ordinance Thursday.
It also requires the bus companies to report storage locations for all their buses to the city each year, and to report any changes quickly.
“This is specifically designed for buses being illegally parked in our residential neighborhoods,” Palmer said.
Ken Ducote, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, said the schools welcome the new enforcement.
“They’re all in favor of the safety of the children and of course they don’t want the buses parked in any inappropriate areas causing problems for the neighborhood,” he said. “I think it’s going to provide uniformity, it’s going to provide standards of quality and it’s going to provide a way of making sure those standards are being met.”
McCarthy, who lives across from the Scholars First lot in the Seventh Ward, hopes the ordinance makes a difference.
“That would be a start. I think it’s a start. I also think they’ve got to get it out of a neighborhood like this," she said.
And Palmer hopes it’s a game-changer.
“I really believe that this is going to have a huge impact, first and foremost on the safety of our children and I think it’s going to allow our parents to sleep better at night knowing that their children are safer,” she said.