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New Orleans Residents and Evacuees Blast State of Schools, Housing, Jobs at Mayoral Forum

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The religious organization Jeremiah Group hosted a mayoral forum at the Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans on Saturday. At the event, a number of the city’s residents and evacuees posed questions and expressed concerns about the direction of the city on issues ranging from schools to housing to jobs. [includes rush transcript]

Here in New Orleans voters are preparing to head to the polls on April 22nd to pick the next mayor. On Sunday satellite voting booths opened across the state, but efforts to set up out-of-state satellite sites have been blocked. Voting rights activists fear tens of thousands of evacuees will be prevented from taking part in what some have described as the city’s most important mayoral election ever.

On Saturday the religious organization Jeremiah Group hosted a mayoral forum at the Trinity Episcopal Church. A number of residents and evacuees posed questions and expressed concerns about the direction of the city on issues ranging from schools to housing to jobs. More interesting than the mayoral candidates responses were the introductory comments by the residents.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Jeremiah, a coalition of religious groups, hosted a mayoral forum at the Trinity Episcopal Church. A number of residents and evacuees posed questions and expressed concerns about the direction of the city on issues ranging from schools to housing to jobs. More interesting than the mayoral candidates’ responses were the introductory comments of the residents.

MACK STAN: My name is Max Lann. I represent Eastern New Orleans United & Whole.

TANGEE WALLS: My name is Tangee Wall. I represent East New Orleans United & Whole.

MACK STAN: We represent a viable community, Eastern New Orleans. Our community cannot and will not accept or tolerate a smaller footprint.

TANGEE WALLS: We need you to provide our community with the same basic services that have already been provided to other areas of the city, and we need these services now.

CASSANDRA THOMPSON: Hi. My name is Cassandra Thompson. I’m a resident of the historic Bienville Corridor. When I left New Orleans September 5, the lights were on at the Hotel Monteleone. When I came back in October, the lights were on at the Hotel Monteleone and all of the French Quarter. I only live a few blocks away. There were no lights in my neighborhood. We didn’t get lights until Mardi Gras. I just got a phone two weeks ago. I still have no gas. Trash pickup is sporadic, and there is no traffic lights in my neighborhood. We need all services in all neighborhoods, and we need them now.

THOMAS WELLS III: My name is Thomas Wells III. I’m a resident of New Orleans East. I’m living in Houston, Texas. I’m very angry with the statement, “Come back home.” To what? I agreed with my wife to let her come back home to help her boss to run — to start back up his business, but each time she does, she is getting dressed out of the trunk of her car. We are a family with dignity. And that is unacceptable. We look for houses, and what we find is $700 one-room apartments falling down or something nicer for $1,200. This is crazy if you’re asking people to come home. I want to see the next mayor that’s going to be in this city. I want that mayor to see things through my wife’s eyes and through my eyes for this city.

WALTER MILTON: My name is Walter Milton from New Orleans East, Louisiana, now living in Houston, Texas. We have been asked to return and help rebuild New Orleans. I want to do my part for this city that, if God says the same, will always be my home, but there is nowhere for me or people like me who want to come return to stay. No shelter. I was originally contacted by FEMA in November regarding a trailer. It’s April. Still no trailer on my property. It gets even better. I got a settlement check from my insurance company for $5.62. Do you hear me? $5.62. You know I’m angry about that. What we need, whether it’s from the present or a new administration is an effective, cohesive, and concise plan, implemented plan to provide temporary and affordable housing for the residents who want to return to New Orleans. That’s all I have.

JAIME OVIEDO: I’m Minister Jaime Oviedo, and I am a leader in Jeremiah. Candidates, you have heard the stories, and it is simple: In order for New Orleaneans to come back home, they must have somewhere to live. This is critical to the rebuilding process and the first step that must be taken. Instead, we have our own public officials blocking the placing of trailers in certain neighborhoods. We have landlords not rebuilding apartment properties, or worse, they rebuild the properties and charge double or triple the previous rates. It is clear there has been a lack of leadership on all levels in bringing us back home.

AMY GOODMAN: A mayoral accountability session being held by the Jeremiah Group and the Industrial Areas Foundation, network of Katrina survivors, that took place on Saturday at the Trinity Episcopal Church here in New Orleans.


AMY GOODMAN: The mayoral race is coming up on April 22. And on Saturday when we first came into the city, we went over to the Trinity Episcopal Church, where we witnessed a mayoral accountability session. Seven mayoral candidates were there, and they were being challenged by evacuees and residents of the Jeremiah Group, a coalition of religious groups, and the IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of Katrina survivors and evacuees. Here they were talking about — these were the residents — talking about housing.

BETTY DiMARCO: My name is Betty DiMarco. I am with CURE, Community United to Reform Education, a member of Jeremiah. We need schools open now. Not tomorrow. Today. The schools that are open in our community now are not accessible to all families who have returned. They have closed enrollment, the majority of them, and that is a problem. There are a few schools open in uptown New Orleans. There are a few schools open in Algiers. Those families who have returned in the Treme and Central City area do not have schools to attend.

Number two, for those of you who are not aware, we have three school systems in our city at this time. We have the Orleans public school system, we have a charter school system, and we have the state of Louisiana recovery school system. We understand that the mayor has no legal connection to education in this city. However, those of us in Jeremiah believe that the mayor of the city of New Orleans has a moral obligation to make sure that schools are open and every child is educated. We need a mayor in this city who can take a leadership role in establishing one 21st century school system with open enrollment, due process, and accountability. Thank you.

WILLIAM GILES: Good afternoon. My name is William Giles. I’m an educator of 30-plus years. I have witnessed children walking up and down the streets of New Orleans during school time. Some I know, some I don’t know. But this, I do know: There are at least 400 students on someone’s waiting list. I have spent my lifetime making sure students are in school. The law and Jeremiah says, they must be in school. But there are no schools to go to. There are at least 10 to 20 schools that can be open within three weeks that have only minor damage. We need, we want our schools open now! Our students are here. Teachers are here. Administrators are here. The schools are here. We need our schools open now!

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans residents and evacuees pleading with, urging, demanding, very angry on Saturday at a mayoral accountability forum in the lead-up to the mayoral race, not clear how many people will be voting in that mayoral race on April 22, particularly those outside of Louisiana. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. Our guests are Bill Quigley. He is a law professor at Loyola University. He’s the director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola. We’re also joined by Tracie Washington, director of NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center here in New Orleans. Tracie Washington, this issue of schools.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Yes, you know, education is a civil right. And one of the most tragic things to come out of this storm is the fact that when people return, their children have no guaranteed right to attend school in Orleans Parish in New Orleans. When I evacuated to Texas, I had to go through two cities. I didn’t have a record for my son. I didn’t have his Social Security card. But in Beaumont, in Austin, all I did was walk into a school and say, 'Hey, he is a seventh grader.' And they said, 'Thank you. You can leave now. We've got this.’ He can go to school without anything. I didn’t need a record.

I come back to New Orleans, and but for the fact that his prior school was opened, he would not have a place to attend school. There were children walking up and down the streets from January until now waiting to get into schools. So, I sued the state and I sued the Orleans Parish schools. And because we have a three-tiered system here with Orleans Parish running certain schools, certain schools being run in sort of a quasi-public-private partnership through charter schools, and then finally the state taking over some schools, I said, all of you have a responsibility to educate these children. It’s tragic, and the biggest part of the tragedy is those people and those families most affected by the storms, those kids that you saw in the storm waters, are the kids who are being denied an education now when they return. We don’t have white children who are out of school. We have black children out of school. Those are the children we need to educate. We need to educate everybody. But we really need to focus in a system where the education was horrible in the first place. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure these children are educated.

AMY GOODMAN: What have the suits brought you?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Each and every time we bring suit, and we go, you know — because kids are placed on waiting lists, suddenly the state announces it’s going to open a couple more schools. I brought a suit in February, and a day after I filed the lawsuit, three schools opened. The union brought suit, and a week after they brought suit three schools were opened. But it’s the state’s position that there has to be a critical mass of kids out of school first, and I asked the state superintendent, what is the story here, where we need to make sure that we have enough students to open schools? What that means is we’ve got to wait until there are about a hundred kids out of school, and then we’ll open a school. That’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just going around yesterday with Malik Rahim of Common Ground, and he brought me to the Martin Luther King School, where they said they couldn’t open it. And they had brought — they had thousands of college students come for spring break from hundreds of colleges and universities from around the country, and they set hundreds of them to work in the school. The city said they couldn’t clean it up. They cleaned it up. He said they threatened to arrest them. And we went by the school. It is immaculate. They cleaned it clean. It’s also a library. But they’re not opening it.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: It’s, like I said, a tragedy. We have schools in the city — I live across the street from a school that is in basically perfect condition, but no one has secured the building. So, you know, vagrants can get in there. They’ve got beautiful, brand new computer equipment, photocopy machines and everything. So I suggested to the state, look if you’re not going to open this school, there are no kids really in my neighborhood, take everything from that school, take it to Martin Luther King, where everything was torn up, where you need computers and desks and everything. And they looked as though they were deer stuck in the headlight. 'Wow, what an idea! What a concept!'

That school served — Martin Luther King — an almost all black neighborhood, and it was a school that had built itself out of the, quote, “recovery system” in the state. Every year the scores increased for that school. And they were doing a phenomenally good job. And the people in that neighborhood not only demanded that the school be opened, but took action in their own hands and said, we’re going to clean it out themselves. And they brought in Common Ground, they brought in many other organizations and said, “Help us.” And they cleaned the school. The state, our school board president went in and said, “We want you all arrested.” The police captain called me, and they said, “What are we supposed to do?” I said, “You really want to arrest people for this?” And they backed off for as long they could. Ultimately a compromise was reached. But it again speaks to schools being the center of a community. You have to open the schools.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the issue of living wage. That was also raised at the mayoral accountability session.

REV. JESSE PATE: From the mouths of the so-called working poor, it is an oxymoron and sounds as ridiculous as cold heat, dry rain, army intelligence, and lately, police protection. If you ask the so-called working poor, they’ll tell you that they work 30, 40, sometimes 60 hours a week. They work for private businesses. They work for the great city itself. And sometimes they work for themselves. Yet they still cannot afford to own their own home. Even with governmental assistance, they fail to qualify. There are three families living under one roof. Two of them will go to work every day.

The working poor, I don’t know what the current and the would-be mayors of the city think that that means. But for them, the working poor means working for nothing. It means modern day slavery. What we need, as the working poor, is fair compensation for an honest day’s work. We need to be able to pay our bills in the same month and have enough to enjoy the rich culture of our city. Not only are we organized and advocate for the needs of the working poor, we are here now and will be here after the election is over to see that they get it.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, these are the voices of those at the mayor accountability session. Seven mayoral candidates were there at the Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans. Hundreds of people were there and many more watching as to who will vote.

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