One of the most notorious photos to come out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, one widely reproduced and linked, is an aerial shot showing literally hundreds of yellow school buses neatly lined up and parked, in a parking lot that had since become a shallow lake. Countless people have looked at that photo and asked, what the hell? Since the human core of this disaster is the tens of thousands of people who lacked the means to leave even if they wanted to, why weren’t those buses used to get those people out! I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. And of course, most of the blame along these lines has landed squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ray Nagin for failing to order them put into action.
On Saturday, Mayor Nagin gave an interview to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in which he addressed this question directly. And he said something that I should have remembered but didn’t until he mentioned it: he didn’t have the authority.
What??? I hear you cry. That’s ridiculous! Those are New Orleans school buses, of course he had the authority. But you see, there you run afoul of one of the sorriest chapters of that sorriest of subjects, Louisiana local politics.
The schools in New Orleans are run by the Orleans Parish School Board. ("Parish" equals "county" to the rest of you, and at any rate is definitely not the same as "city.") Under the Louisiana constitution, the school board is a politically autonomous entity, responsible to no one but the voters and, if it comes to that, the courts. And unfortunately, the few voters who trouble themselves over school board elections have historically elected some of the most appallingly inept and corrupt board members ever to disgrace public office. Students’ testing scores are among the lowest in the country, and prosecutions among the staff for corruption and embezzlement are almost routine.
The board members seem to consider fighting among themselves for power and patronage their primary activity, rather than putting the needs of the children first. Some years ago they hired as Superintendent a man named Anthony Amato, who had a record of turning around failing school districts in New York and Connecticut. Then the board, the same board that hired him, set about undermining his efforts and keeping the old corrupt system in place with such success that after two years he quit in disgust. There have been occasional attempts to amend the constitution and replace the elected board with one appointed by the mayor, but they have all failed because if there’s one thing the board members do agree on, it’s that the board must remain fully independent and autonomous. And they’re all sufficiently canny politicians to make sure that happens.
Maybe things will get better in the future, as some of the worst offenders on the board lost their bids for re-election after Amato quit. But it hasn’t happened yet. So when Nagin said in that interview, "I don’t control the school buses," he was speaking simple truth. Maybe something could have been done, if someone had thought of it. Maybe the board should have offered the buses, if they could have gotten together and agreed on it (a big "if"). Maybe Nagin should have thought to ask them for their use. Maybe we remember the old saying about being up to your ass in alligators and forgetting that your original job was to drain the swamp. (Or bayou, in this case, for a painfully appropriate turn of phrase.)
But I’m sure of one thing. At the point in time when it would have been possible to use those buses to get the people out, Mayor Nagin did not have the authority to issue the order for them to roll and have it be obeyed. By the time he declared a mandatory evacuation, maybe he could have claimed the authority. But by then, with the storm only a day away, it was just too late.
By the time we know all, he may have to accept the blame for a lot of things. But not, I think, for that shallow lake full of school buses.