BATON ROUGE, LA—Several lawmakers expressed their displeasure about how it's run, but a legislative budget committee finally agreed to let the Recovery School District move ahead with $163 million in repairs to hurricane-damaged schools in New Orleans.
The construction money comes from the federal government - 90 percent from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the remaining 10 percent from Community Development Block Grants. It will be used to repair, maintain and, in some cases, demolish public schools that sustained damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Since the money flows through the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget must give its approval before it can be spent.
Friday's approval came after several lawmakers complained to the state-run school district about its contracting practices and accused its officials of doing a poor job of communicating with the Legislature.
Several lawmakers were dismayed that the school district amended its contract with Jacobs Engineering, which is overseeing the construction program. The contract was originally for $18 million, but has grown to $28 million as the company's duties have expanded.
Lona Edwards Hankins, director of capital improvements for the school district, said Jacobs has been instrumental in identifying repairs that can be billed to FEMA's public assistance program.
Rep. Mack "Bodi" White, R-Central, wondered why the additional work wasn't put out to bid so that other companies could compete for the work.
Others complained that neither state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek nor Recovery School District chief Paul Vallas appeared before the committee to answer questions when so much money was at stake.
"It's really a disservice to us to not have Mr. Pastorek or Mr. Vallas here for something so significant," said House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, accused the school district of moving too slowly to return properties it is not using to the Orleans Parish School Board.