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New Orleans — With $1.8 billion of FEMA money in hand and construction costs at new lows, the comprehensive overhaul of New Orleans public school buildings is proceeding at an accelerated pace with groundbreakings at eight elementary schools.

In addition to the groundbreakings, about a dozen school construction projects are already under way and five more will begin by the middle of next year. Three new schools and three top-to-bottom renovations were already finished before the historic FEMA settlement to compensate for widespread Hurricane Katrina damage to school buildings was announced in August.

If all six phases of the school facilities master plan are completed, encompassing 80 or so projects, nearly every student in New Orleans would attend school in a new or renovated building. But education officials concede that the FEMA settlement, which allows for new structures to be built where they are most needed rather than merely replacing what was there before, will likely run out after phase three or four, and they are preparing a report on just how far the money will go.

Critics are highlighting the shortfall and questioning how the spending is being overseen and who will shoulder the cost of maintaining the new facilities.

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