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Tuesday, April 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Crises multiply at schools in New Orleans

The Associated Press

Superintendent Anthony Amato's reforms failed.

NEW ORLEANS — Dozens of employees indicted or convicted on corruption charges. Tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for. Eight superintendents in seven years. Rock-bottom test scores. Shootings, sirens and police uniforms, often. The threat of bankruptcy and bounced checks, constantly.

In the dismal gallery of failing urban school systems, New Orleans' may be the biggest horror of them all.

"Urban districts, in general, will often have problems with instruction, with finances, with operations," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington. "But they don't always occur at the same time. And New Orleans is really facing a three-front challenge."

New Orleans "is almost a national scandal," said James Harvey of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "The consistent gossip about favoritism and corruption is extremely troubling." And the city has become "murderers row for superintendents."

Long ago abandoned by this city's middle class, New Orleans public schools are in sad shape academically. New Orleans accounts for 55 of Louisiana's 78 worst schools. More than two-thirds of the school system's fourth-graders do not have basic competence in math.

The latest crisis in the 64,000-student system broke two weeks ago. First, teachers nearly missed a paycheck, the system was so broke. Then, the state threatened a takeover. Finally, the superintendent — a reformer from New York who, like many before him, entered with grand plans — was forced out by a school board disenchanted with his reform ideas.

Superintendent Anthony Amato's fate was sealed last week at a board meeting crackling with racial hostility. Much of the hooting was directed at him and his white supporters in the school system, which is almost 94 percent black.

Financially, the school system is a "train wreck," Louisiana's top government watchdog, legislative auditor Steve Theriot, told lawmakers in Baton Rouge. No one knows for certain how much money it has, or how much money it owes.

At the glass-and-steel school administration complex across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, FBI agents and other federal and state investigators have opened an office to pick through the evidence of graft.

Just last week, a payroll clerk was sent to jail for stealing $250,000 — she had kept her job with the New Orleans schools, even after being indicted on charges of stealing from a bank. A year ago the district's insurance manager pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks. One of the bribe-givers was former Mayor Marc Morial's aunt.

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In February, the U.S. Education Department said nearly $70 million in federal money for low-income children was either not properly accounted for or misspent.

State officials said one reason is that for years, teachers and principals wanting promotions to more lucrative central-office positions have been put into accounting jobs for which they are not qualified.

"There is not one accountant working in the accounting department," Theriot said. "There's not one in the trenches."

State and federal officials are demanding that every aspect of the district's finances be turned over to an outside accounting firm. The locals are balking, but they probably cannot resist much longer: Washington and Baton Rouge, which give New Orleans more than half of its $577 million budget, have the upper hand.

Meanwhile, morale in the beleaguered teaching corps is sagging.

"We're constantly hit by these disasters," said Leo Laventhal, a French and Spanish teacher at one of the city's magnet schools. Often, colleagues at his school never receive their paychecks. And it is no use complaining: "We call the central office, and nobody answers the phone," Laventhal said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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