By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Update: The story has been corrected to reflect two changes – one, board member Charles Rice’s status as a member, not a president, and two, charter contract renewal forms being the method ACSA officials would have used to change retirement benefit options. 

If you had asked Algiers Charter School Association officials a few weeks ago why the charter operator was no longer participating in the statewide teacher retirement pension program, they would have told you that they voluntarily opted out because the costs had gotten too steep.

If you asked them the same question at their board meeting tonight, they would have told you that they never made a decision to opt out of the program, that they didn’t know they were out of the program until the state department of education told them in September, and that they were now fighting to remain in the program until the end of the fiscal year.

Inconsistencies ran amok at the Algiers charter group’s board meeting Thursday, as charter school board members gave a presentation on the statewide retirement system and took public comment from a crowd that filled the bottom floor of Martin Behrman Charter School’s auditorium. Close to the end of the meeting, the charter board voted to keep teachers in the retirement system until June. Tensions were high as teachers, parents, and community members called the board out on its abrupt switch in stance.

Board president member Charles Rice and Chief Executive Officer Andrea Reynolds insisted that the board never voted to pull the charter school group out of the teacher’s retirement system, despite an Oct. 7 public statement released on the charter operator’s website that affirmed the organization’s decision to change lifelong retirement benefits to a plan comparable to 401K. Algiers Charter School Association spokesman David Jackson said in an Oct. 12 email to The Lens that the board, as a whole, voted at the Sept. 29 board meeting to withdraw from the pension program, and that he would provide the minutes from that meeting as soon as they were approved.

Note: Charles Rice, board president for the 2010-2011 school year, now serves as a board member.

Audience members were not buying the board’s story.

“As I listen to this presentation, I’m a little concerned, because there’s a lie that’s being told,” O. Perry Walker Charter High School English teacher Anita Dennis said. “I was under the impression that this was a done deal…so how can we be here tonight about making a decision about whether or not to leave out of (the retirement system), when my understanding is that it has already been done?”

Indeed, an entire grassroots group was created based off the board’s original decision to cut benefits. Dubbed the Algiers Parents Teachers and Community Organization, the group drew the attention of Orleans Parish School Board President Lourdes Moran, BESE District 2 representative Louella Givens, local attorney Willie Zanders, and WBOK radio show host Gerrod Stephens – all of whom attended the organization’s meeting last week to talk strategies for fighting the charter group’s decision.

Despite that, Rice and Reynolds said the board never voted on anything. But soon after they made that claim, Rice spoke about the tough decisions that charter boards must sometimes make.

“We as a board have an obligation to make sure that these schools are financially viable,” he said. Later, he mentioned that in his industry – his day job is Entergy, Inc.’s chief executive officer – employers make decisions about employee retirement at will, and the employees are rarely notified before the fact. The crowd jeered at his statement.

Reynolds said that the Department of Education notified them in September that they were no longer listed in the pension program, and that they subsequently notified the public of that revelation. Rice then revealed that he signed the applications for charter renewals for five of the organization’s eight schools – these were due in October 2010. Electing to withdraw from the state’s retirement system is an option available on applications for charter renewal charter contract amendment request forms, which may be submitted prior to the date of charter renewal. The charter operator would have had to check the box to withdraw in order to not be placed in the program for the next fiscal year.

Note: The paragraph has been corrected to reflect that charter contract amendment request forms are what ACSA officials would have had to fill out in order to change retirement options. 

Reynolds said that the board didn’t know that their request to withdraw from the program would be approved, and when they were notified in September, they immediately informed the public. Again, this contradicts Jackson’s statement that the board approved the decision at the Sept. 29 meeting.

This email is from Algiers charter board spokesman David Jackson to a reporter at The Lens..

When confronted with the disparity in stances at Thursday night’s meeting, Jackson said to a reporter that while the board may have been under the impression that they were voting on the decision at the Sept. 29 meeting, it was the administration’s position to opt out of the retirement system, and that before the board approved any decisions, they wanted to hold Thursday’s public meeting to hear comments. He did not specify a difference between the charter operator’s administrative team and the charter board itself.

The board’s change of heart raised other questions, as well – some school board employees who addressed the board spoke of recent pay stubs that still showed pension contributions taken out.

“The funds taken out for July and August were provided to TRSL,” Reynolds answered. “The funds for September were kind of put to the side, until we had this meeting tonight. One of things we will have to do is say, OK, we are in TRSL. For October we will have to pay that out.”

Her response elicited groans from the crowd – minutes earlier, attorney Willie Zanders was praised for questioning where cash that gets put to the side in the Algiers charter group’s budget goes, and criticizing the board for what he called excessive spending in central office costs.

Zanders later said he appreciated the charter school’s change in stance, but said that despite it, the grassroots group would continue to meet.

“I encourage your finance committee to work with us to plan the budget for 2012-2013…so we wont have to have this fight again,” he told board members. “I think you all know, if we have to fight, we’ll do what we have to do.”

The community group’s next meeting is scheduled for next Thursday at 5:30 p.m., at Love Outreach Christian Center in Algiers.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...