As president of the Tremé Charter School Association’s board of directors, Roslyn Smith is used to overseeing the faculty and staff of McDonogh 42, an open enrollment, public charter school educating students from Pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade with almost 450 students an enrollment  in 2011-2012 of 527 students.

But as of July 1, she found herself in charge of only a skeleton staff managing the handover of the school to another charter school management organization, the Choice Foundation.

As she met with students, faculty members and some board members at the end of her time as board president, Smith helped explain the challenges facing charter management organizations as they hand over the financial and managerial control of a failing school.

A year in limbo

The Tremé Charter School Association ran McDonogh 42 Elementary for four years and was contracted to run it for a fifth, but that was pending a renewal decision at the end of the fourth year five years, from 2007 through 2012.

Many on the board and in the school operated that fourth fifth year without a clear understanding of who would be in charge for the 2012-2013 school year.

Smith and other members of the board found out on November 5 of 2011 that Tremé’s charter contract would probably not be renewed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state announced in January of 2012 that the Choice Foundation would be taking over the school, and at around the same time the decision was made to keep the school running in the same location for the 2012-2013 school year.

But Smith vowed to fight the revocation of the Tremé association’s charter. School officials wanted to wait until the 2012 spring semester, when the results of state tests were released, to see if they had grounds to fight to maintain control. Board members believed the non-renewal determination was premature without that information.

“We didn’t seriously think about closing until we got LEAP scores this year,” Smith said, referring to the results of state standardized tests including LEAP and iLEAP exams. It is not unusual for school officials to refer to all of the results simply as LEAP scores.

Teachers continued to work throughout the year not knowing for sure the status of the school’s charter management organization.

“I taught as if it was still going to be open,” said a veteran teacher who did not wish to be identified. She has accepted employment with a different school.

The spring test results were not enough to fight non-renewal.

Smith said, “We were at 65, and we needed to move to 75,” referring to the percent of students meeting a set of minimum standards. “And at the end of our fourth year we’ve had a drop of 2.7 points.”

With flagging test scores, an announcement in January that the Choice Foundation would take over the school, and the eventual termination of 45 faculty and staff members, it had become crystal clear that the Tremé Charter School Association, which only operated one school, was going to hand over the reigns of McDonogh 42 and unravel.

The transition

After the Choice Foundation learned it was slated to take over McDonogh 42, Choice distributed a list to the Tremé Charter School Association staff and requested several documents based on the Recovery School District’s turnover recommendations.

But there were items requested by Choice that Smith felt she could not turn over directly to the organization. For example, students’ Individualized Educational Programs and parents’ contact information.

Choice officials expressed at their board meeting in June that their organization could have been off to a faster start with this information in hand.

But Smith is unsure of how to proceed, not only regarding the handover of documents, but with how to manage McDonogh’s money as well.

Section 3.6.2 of the Tremé Charter School Association charter with the Recovery School District states:

“If the charter school fails to open and serve pupils or closes for any reason, including the revocation of its Charter, the Charter Operator shall immediately refund all equipment and cash on hand attributable to state funding to the state; shall not pay any debts with such funds, whether incurred before or after the failure to open and serve pupils or the closure of the charter school; and shall make no other disposition whatsoever of such funds or equipment.”

Louisiana RS 17:3995

Smith is under the impression that the Tremé association’s money must be given directly to Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, BESE, but Kizzy Payton, executive director of communications for the Recovery School District, the arm  of the state educational system that manages failing schools, said the money could be transferred directly between schools.  Smith said all money was still in the Tremé association’s accounts as of July 3.

Payton indicated that the financial decisions that the Tremé association makes after June 30 would be left up to a negotiation or series of negotiations between the Tremé association and the Choice Foundation.

“TCSA [the Tremé Charter School Association] may hold onto some funds to pay for reasonable close-out costs. This must be approved by the incoming operator,” Payton said in an e-mail to The Lens.

Smith planned to employ the CEO, secretary and business manager through August to help with close-out work but was worried she wouldn’t have access to money to pay them.  The Tremé association approved a motion for a close-out budget not to exceed $39,000, including those salaries to budget $39,000 to cover salaries as the school closes. This does not, however, cover the total cost of the transition.

Close-out work includes running the school’s required annual audit, crafting the annual school report, closing grants, and filing reimbursement paperwork for federal grant programs such as Title I.  Smith said last year’s audit cost about $30,000.

“All reimbursements [from federal grants] from this point forward will go to Choice,” Smith said regarding federal program money.

Most of the work can be completed by August, Smith said; however, the Tremé association plans to file W2 forms late in the calendar year for employees filing their 2012 taxes.

Planning for these contingencies has been difficult. The Tremé Chater School Association was unable to reach a quorum at its last board meeting and is waiting to reschedule.  Smith said the board will then vote on whether to completely dissolve or to hold more meetings to complete several final tasks.

The board has yet to schedule the meeting.

Beyond the boardroom

As Choice staffers began to move into the school, Louise Bryant sat on her front porch across the street from McDonogh 42, where her grandson is a student.

“If it’s good for the children’s future, it’s good,” Bryant said.

The last communication she received from Tremé Charter School Association was a letter saying her grandson had passed the first grade.  She said still doesn’t know if he has a spot in the school next year.

Crystal White lives across Tonti Street from the school.  She said she tried to enroll her three boys in McDonogh 42 a few years ago, but the school was full.  The boys now attend other charter schools in the city.  She hadn’t heard of community meetings regarding the transition, but said if she had heard she would have attended.

One of the challenges the Choice foundation will face as it takes over the school will be the establishment or re-establishment of lines of communication with neighbors and parents.

Back inside the building, Smith spent the final weeks of June verifying classroom inventories.

She found unused supplies from when the building opened as a direct-run RSD school post-Katrina.  McDonough 42 opened in February 2007 because of burgeoning wait lists.

Smith also found boxes of unopened mathematical teaching tools or “math manipulatives”.

She said they were excess supplies. “Our teachers were using three per classroom where you would normally have one,” she said.

Those supplies, along with any equipment acquired through federal or state money for the students will stay at the school, according to Smith.  This includes desks, computers, lunch tables, lunchroom equipment, and janitorial supplies.

Smith made one more interesting discovery while conducting inventory checks: More than 50 boxes of student records dating back to the early 1980’s were found in storage.  Smith was unsure if these should have been kept in the school or at a state facility. Apparently, these decisions were not made or were not followed through with during previous transitions of control.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...