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By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

Defying political speculation, Stacy Head told The Lens Wednesday she plans to take office as one of the City Council’s two at-large members before May 7, meaning she would not be eligible for two full terms after this partial term is over.

“I think it is important to take office as quickly as possible with a short transition period.” Head said in a telephone interview.

City voting officials reviewed Saturday’s voting-machine counts and confirmed Tuesday that Head won an exceedingly narrow 281-vote victory over former state legislator and City Council district member Cynthia Willard-Lewis, a frequent but unsuccessful candidate for an at-large seat. Willard-Lewis who has not conceded the race and has said she is considering her options.

Ironically, the only thing that could make Head eligible for an additional four-year term in the at-large seat is if Willard-Lewis files a lawsuit and delays Head’s swearing in past May 7.

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By Marta Jewson, The Lens contributing writer

Yolanda Rodriguez, long-time executive director of the New Orleans City Planning Commission, stormed out of a closed executive session 20 minutes after it began Tuesday afternoon.

Commission members did not elaborate on Rodriguez’ evident annoyance, and she could not be reached for comment.

A day earlier, commission chairman Craig Mitchell had informed Rodriguez via email that the executive session would be an opportunity to evaluate her “character, professional competence, or physical or mental health” unless she requested it be done in an open meeting.

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

To make expulsion hearings more equitable for Recovery School District students, the state-run agency will coordinate hearings at its 66 New Orleans schools through a central office.

The RSD Expulsion Hearing Office, once responsible for conducting hearings only at schools the district runs directly, will now oversee hearings for students at its charter schools as well. The move comes three years after media reports questioned data on the expulsion rates at some charter schools.

The change was approved last week at a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Much like the unified enrollment system, the RSD’s new expulsion hearing process will help ensure a consistent, equitable process for every student in the district,” RSD spokeswoman Kizzy Payton wrote in an emailed statement. “Schools will maintain their autonomy to build a positive culture, and students’ families will have a uniform experience regardless of where they are enrolled.”

The email did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry as to whether the policy change was a response to complaints about expulsion inequities.

While state data recorded only four student suspensions at the RSD’s east bank charter schools in 2009, school administrators at those schools said the actual figure was higher, according to The Times-Picayune.

The new policy takes effect Aug. 1.

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Racial crossover voting and low black voter turnout appear to be the keys to City Councilwoman Stacy Head’s narrow victory Saturday in the election for an at-large seat.

Head, who is white, won far fewer precincts than challenger Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who is black, but the turnout was much higher in the 148 that Head won; Willard-Lewis won 217 precincts.

This map, created by NolaStat.org, shows how the votes were divided in each precinct, along with relative turnout. Download or view a larger pdf here.

Click to enlarge. Map courtesy of NolaStat.org

The website is the brainchild of geographic systems consultant Brian Denzer, who started the advocacy project in 2008 to promote performance management in City Hall, and to improve public access to city data.

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By Conor Monahan, The Lens contributing writer |

In Plaquemines Parish, “residents live with disasters,” Richard A. Blink Jr. said Friday, the two-year anniversary of the BP oil spill.

But as Blink and others pointed out, some residents live with disaster better than others, and indeed, the oil disaster affected residents differently.

Blink, a small-business owner, was among those attending the release of a report that examines the effects of the spill on small businesses in the tightly knit parish, where a flood of recovery money divided neighbors and friends into “spillionaires” and those who continue to struggle.

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Citing a drain in state funding, the Orleans Parish School Board likely will increase city property taxes by 4 percent to raise an additional $6.8 million for 2013.

Board officials say new education legislation, particularly Gov. Bobby’s Jindal’s statewide private-school voucher program that will use public money, is projected to lower the per-student amount each district gets from the state.

State education leaders dispute that, but local board members aren’t taking their chances.

The School Board has scheduled a public hearing for May 15 to discuss raising their tax rate to a level already approved by voters. The hearing is set for 4 p.m. at McDonogh No. 35.

The board’s tax rate is now 43.6 mills; it’s proposing a rate of 45.31 mills.

Here’s how it would affect homeowners:

Late last year, the board stood alone among public taxing agencies in lowering its tax rate in light of increasing property values. State law requires public bodies collecting property tax to lower, or roll back, their rates when overall property values rise, ensuring that they take in the same amount of money. But after a public hearing, those agencies can vote to roll forward their tax rates and reap the increased money.

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

In an unexpected move Tuesday night, Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Darryl Kilbert announced his retirement after more than 30 years as an educator in the city.

Kilbert told members of the Orleans Parish School Board at a Tuesday night meeting. Kilbert, 55, cited a medical condition as his reason for his retirement, effective June 30.

He read a resignation letter to the board and to the audience, breaking into tears when thanking board members for the chance to serve.

“I appreciate the opportunities that have been given to me, and your professional guidance and support,” he said. “I assure you that I will complete any outstanding projects and business affairs before my departure.”

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As expected, a one-time city contractor facing federal charges in a Nagin-era kickback scheme is cooperating with investigators and is set to plead guilty next week, according to his attorney and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office.

Earl Myers, who ran Myers & Sons and Excel Development contracting services, stands accused of collecting more money than he earned from a city agency — the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Program — for post-Katrina remediation work, and then returning some of the money to the city official who doled out the work, according to government court filings.

Myers is “cooperating with the government somewhat, and that is the most I can tell you,” his attorney, Richard Moore, said this morning. “He is a nice guy and I hope he catches a break.”

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

The Orleans Parish School Board has announced next year’s school building assignments and schools’ long-term homes for the 17 schools they govern.

Some changes may be news to parents, though others were detailed at previous board meetings. Next year, McDonogh No. 35 and the Architecture Design and Engineering Preparatory High School will combine, with McDonogh No. 35 eventually going on to the old Phillips and Waters school site, as had been previously announced.

Encore Academy, a new charter school that the board recently approved, will share space with the Crocker Arts and Technology School site temporarily next year, pending the Crocker board’s approval later this month. Edna Karr Charter High School will eventually go to the former Jo Ellen Smith hospital site on Gen. Meyer Avenue, and the Lake Forest Charter School will go to the Greater St. Stephen site on Lake Forest Boulevard.

It’s unclear what the future permanent locations of Encore Academy, the New Orleans Science and Math High School, Robert Moton Charter School, or the Audubon Charter School’s Carrollton Avenue campus will be.

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he Lens has been honored as the best online news operation for audio investigative reporting in a four-state region by the Radio Television Digital News Association.

The Lens received the 2012 regional Edward R. Murrow first-place award for our story on the struggles of one 9th Ward homeowner, Kisa Holmes. The story documented Holmes’ struggles to rebuild her Hurricane Katrina-ravaged home after complying with her mortgage company’s suggestion to use the bulk of her insurance proceeds to pay off her loan.

The online story was a collaborative endeavor between Lens reporter Jessica Williams and G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism fellow Bob Butler, who produced the audio report based on the joint reporting. The story was also printed by our partners at The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

The regional award considers entries from radio, television and online news operations in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

Winners in this category from other regions include The Seattle Times, The Denver Post, Star Tribune of Minneapolis, DallasNews.com, The Texas Tribune, Detroit Free Press and The Boston Globe.

Our reporting partners at WVUE-TV also received a slew of first place awards in the small-market television category for video news series, video news documentary, video continuing coverage, video reporting of hard news, and video feature reporting for four of their pieces.

One other local television station, WWL-TV, received awards for its website, for its use of video, and for video sports reporting.

Click here to see the full list of winners.

By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer

Surrounded by deputies, Orleans Parish Sherriff Marlin Gusman announced today that he is closing the Orleans Parish Prison House of Detention facility on Perdido Street.

He said the move is based in part on “the mounting criticisms” and the “inspections by the federal people.”

Last week, U.S. Marshals removed the 20 prisoners serving federal time at the Orleans Parish Prison, citing unacceptable conditions.

The high-rise House of Detention is one of seven facilities used to house prisoners in the prison complex. As of 7 a.m. today, there were 2,848 inmates in the parish complex, with 22 percent in the House of Detention. By the end of the week, that total will likely be reduced by at least 400.

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By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer

A fading assessor’s office photograph shows the billboard has been bestride the now blighted shotgun at 2724 N. Claiborne Ave. for quite some time.

One of the great philosophical conundrums of our time played out before the Neighborhood Conservation Committee this week: when is a house a billboard (and vice versa.)

At issue was the city’s desire to demolish a blighted Ninth Ward shotgun alongside the old concrete bridge that carries Claiborne Avenue up over the railroad yard near Franklin Avenue.

What makes the house distinctive is the giant billboard not just near the house but squatting on top of it. Assessor’s records place the value of the house at $5,300 – about what a well-placed billboard throws off in rental income every few months, according to industry sources.

The city Office of Code Enforcement applied for the demolition and said it plans to use FEMA funds to knock the house down.

The committee, which oversees demolitions across a wide swath of the city, heard what amounted to a chicken-or-egg argument as they tried to figure out which came first – the billboard or the house – and who owned what.

By Maggie Calmes, The Lens staff writer

The Lens criminal justice reporter Matt Davis returned last week to his hometown of Croydon, South London – but not before receiving laurels from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Davis received a 2011 Prevention for a Safer Society Award from the organization for his story “Overmedicating Young Inmates Called Chemical Restraint,” which examined a statewide practice of dosing youth inmates with potent antipsychotic drugs even when they had not been diagnosed with conditions requiring medication.

The council also honored Lens news editor Jed Horne with the same award for editing the piece.

The council applies research to policy and practice in criminal justice, juvenile justice, and child welfare. It makes awards to journalists and those in film and literature who draw attention to these issues in a thoughtful way.

The Lens congratulates the Center for Public Integrity, National Public Radio, City Limits, Seattle Weekly, and several other peer organizations as fellow recipients.

Read more about the council and its full slate of 2011 recipients here.

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

It’s Friday morning in Kimberly Sanfeliz’s class, and one of her students, a 7-year-old, is signing in.

“Where’s the D?” Sanfeliz asks, mentioning the first letter of the little girl’s name as she stands in front of a board emblazoned with a colorful alphabet. After a few bashful smiles, the girl slowly lifts a finger and points to the D.

Sanfeliz smiles and nods, guides the student through the rest of her first name. She sends the girl back to her seat then brings another student to the board to try the same exercise.

Signing in is a routine that all students at Joseph Craig Elementary must complete as the school day begins. But for children with cognitive disabilities, the procedure is a bit different.

Kids in Sanfeliz’s special-education class learn to spell with “alternate pencils,” an array of techniques, including the use of keyboards, that permit students to identify letters without necessarily having to write them. Sanfeliz’s class at Craig is one of two in the Recovery School District using the technique. The other is at Sarah T. Reed High School.

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By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer

Feel like the city’s got a boot on your neck? How about on your tire?

There’s a reason why. In the past year, New Orleans parking officials have become much more aggressive in the use of devices that immobilize cars with outstanding parking tickets.

“[W]e used to boot vehicles if they had more than three violations,” said city Department of Public Works parking administrator Zepporiah Edmonds, in testimony Wednesday afternoon before the City Council’s Budget-Audit Board of Review.

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