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School system overhaul seen as a 'silver lining' of Katrina

NEW ORLEANS -- The slimy mildew clinging to classroom walls for years, the termite-eaten floors, the paint peeling from ceilings -- Hurricane Katrina washed all that way.

The storm that destroyed much of this city also devastated New Orleans's public schools.

But that wasn't all bad. The system, regarded as one of the worst in America, had been rotting for decades: buildings were neglected, children weren't learning, millions of dollars were squandered or stolen.

Now, six months after Katrina, a small number of schools has reopened, but many people see the storm's destruction as a rare opportunity to rebuild a system that had no place to go but up.

''This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of Katrina," says Sajan George, a turnaround specialist who began working at the schools before the storm. ''We would not have been able to start with an almost-clean slate if Katrina had not happened."

Some educators are proposing a bold plan that calls for a major shakeup of the system: schools would be grouped in clusters run by managers, students would have choices about where they attend, and most money and hiring decisions would shift from the superintendent's office to the principals, who are considered more attuned to schools' needs.

''We have to have a whole new mind-set about how we approach public education," said Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University and head of a mayoral committee that developed the plan.

Change won't come easily. There's a long history of squabbling among board members, scandal, and academic failure. And that was before Katrina. Now there are new headaches -- thousands of teachers have no jobs, parents are frustrated with the slow pace of school reopenings, and insiders are openly skeptical of plans for the future.

''I don't think you turn around a failing system by changing the structure of the system," said Ora Watson, interim superintendent of the New Orleans public schools.

Watson also contends that not everyone is being heard. ''Some people are being left out of the conversation," she says. ''I'm talking about poor people, people who populated the schools, the African-American community."

Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, sees it as an attempt to socially engineer the system. ''They're not interested in bringing the poor people back."

The Bring New Orleans Back Education Committee that developed the plan said it consulted a diverse group of more than 1,500 people from New Orleans, including teachers, parents, and students, along with specialists around the nation, and is committed to creating top-quality schools in every neighborhood.

The Orleans Parish school board has endorsed the plan; the mayor and governor haven't officially weighed in on it.

Everyone in New Orleans has long been aware of the need to mend this broken system. The schools were so mismanaged that budgets hadn't been balanced in five years, teachers often received inaccurate paychecks, and corruption was endemic.

The system was on the brink of financial collapse when Katrina roared in, severely damaging about a quarter of the schools. Roofs caved in. Fierce winds blew out walls and hurled desks through windows. About 300 buses were submerged in flood waters. Computers, furniture, and books were buried in mud.

Total losses could reach $1 billion.

Federal dollars will go a long way toward rebuilding, but the schools still face a projected $111 million deficit by June.

A large chunk of that is unemployment compensation for teachers and other workers, but those costs could be deferred until next year.

Traditional streams of school dollars -- property and sales taxes -- have shrunken dramatically because some neighborhoods still look like postapocalyptic burial grounds and many businesses remain shuttered.

Yet schools will be a major indicator of how successful New Orleans is in luring families back home.

''As long as we don't replicate what we had before, I think schools can be a magnet" in repopulating the city, said Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a think tank.

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