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ExCEED withdraws applications to charter remaining traditional schools in New Orleans

ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization, a new group led by principals and Orleans Parish school district staff, has withdrawn its applications to convert New Orleans’ last five traditional schools to charters.

New Orleans could have become the first city in the U.S. where the elected school board doesn’t directly run any public schools. Now that won’t happen — at least, not this year.

Besides ExCEED’s withdrawal, the school district has all but decided to operate Mahalia Jackson Elementary School for one more year and then close it down. (Update: The school board has put that decision on hold.)

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced ExCEED’s withdrawal in a statement Wednesday afternoon, an hour after the agenda for Thursday’s school board meeting was published with no mention of the group’s charter applications.

Charter schools are publicly funded but run by private nonprofit groups. They must answer to government bodies for academic, financial and organizational performance. But as long as they meet those targets, they have broad authority to set educational methods and priorities.

Lewis was supposed to have made a recommendation on the applications at Thursday’s meeting, which itself was two days after he was initially scheduled to do so.

“No further action will be taken by the district relative to this submission,” Lewis said in the statement.

“On behalf of the members of the Orleans Parish School Board,” he said, “I sincerely thank ExCeed for their commitment to the students and families of Orleans Parish, and their interest in operating charter schools with OPSB.”

Parent Ingrid Thomas said she was relieved. Her two children attend Benjamin Franklin Elementary, one of the schools ExCEED wanted to take over.

“I’m hoping it was them hearing the public,” she said.

Besides Ben Franklin and Mahalia Jackson, ExCEED wanted to take over Bethune Elementary, Eleanor McMain Secondary School and McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

After Hurricane Katrina, those schools remained under the local school district while struggling schools were closed by the state or handed over to charter operators.

Thomas criticized the Orleans Parish school district for ignoring repeated calls for openness after Lewis announced in December that the five principals wanted to charter their schools. Principals sent students home with fill-in-the-blank letters of support for ExCEED in January, before parents knew who would run the group or whether anyone else would apply to take over the schools.

Now, Thomas said, “We can try to get at the meat of where this is truly coming from because I know we didn’t initiate this. We’re a great school as it is.”

Two of the schools — Ben Franklin Elementary, or Baby Ben as it’s known, and Bethune — were among the three schools with the most applicants in the city’s centralized enrollment lottery. Each has a B rating from the state.

In pitching the charter effort in general and ExCEED in particular — the distinction wasn’t always clear, in part because that’s also the name of the OPSB office that runs the schools — Lewis and principals told parents that nothing would change if the schools chartered.

It was Lewis who announced the principals’ intentions. ExCEED didn’t register as a nonprofit with the state until ten days before it officially notified the district that it wanted the schools.

Besides the principals, the charter group never had much of a public presence. Questions about who would lead the organization and who would sit on the board were left unanswered for weeks. Some remain unanswered, such as who wrote the charter applications.

Lewis suggested the schools would get more money from the state if they were chartered. That’s true, but the schools also would be responsible for administrative matters that are now handled by the central office.

Earlier this month, ExCEED received poor marks from an independent evaluation team. They recommended the school board deny its applications, questioning whether the principals’ shared vision was enough to carry a new charter network.

Evaluators said the group did not meet standards in the four areas it reviewed: academic, organizational, financial and “evidence of capacity.”

ExCEED CEO Nicolette London, who quit her job with the district overseeing those schools days before the group turned in its application, did not return a call for comment. A spokesman said the group would release a written statement Thursday.

London and four of her former coworkers were named in the group’s application. That could have created a conflict of interest because public employees generally must wait two years before working with an organization if they dealt with it in their government jobs.

Public employees also must wait two years before doing the same work as a contractor for their former public agency.

The district said it established legal and ethical safeguards by cordoning off central office staffers involved with ExCEED. However, the school district did not seek an advisory opinion from the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which regularly gives public employees guidance on how the law applies to particular situations.

Thomas said Toni Pickett, one of the central office employees named in ExCEED’s application, was at a meeting in December at which parents were told about the effort to charter the school.

That was one of the problems with the charter effort detailed last week by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. The news outlet tallied several instances in which the school district delayed releasing information that would have informed parents and the public about what could happen to the schools.

For example, it took the district days to post charter applications on its website after the submission deadline.

InspireNOLA is expected to get McMain, one of the schools ExCEED sought, pending school board approval tomorrow. (Update: The board approved handing McMain to InspireNOLA.)

At a public hearing last week, members of the public spoke for and against chartering the schools. Alumni of Eleanor McMain Secondary School voiced support for InspireNOLA’s bid for their alma mater.

The school board meets tomorrow at 5 p.m. Thomas said she’ll be there.

“The timing of all of this, just one thing after the other, has been very suspect,” she said. “I’m curious to see where it’s going to go from here.”

This story was updated after publication to include background and reaction, and to note the school board decisions regarding Mahalia Jackson and McMain.

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