Update, 9:45 p.m.: BESE has accepted the Recovery School District’s outline of transfer to local control policies. 

The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education received and approved a plan by the Recovery School District Wednesday on a process for transferring schools back to the Orleans Parish School Board

The plan is expected to ease several charter school leaders’ trepidation about returning to oversight by the Orleans Parish School Board, which was bankrupt and widely seen as incompetent when the state took over most New Orleans schools in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.

In December, high-performing charter schools were given the first option of moving from the state-run Recovery School District to the School Board. No school did so. Many people cited the lack of a clear process and concern about possible loss of autonomy.

Critics of the RSD say they want a return to “local control” of schools, though RSD leaders are based in New Orleans and charter schools have independently appointed boards made up of people required to live in Orleans or an adjoining parish. What neither of those offer, however, is the accountability that voters have when elected officials are overseeing schools.

The return plan presented Wednesday is really an effort to educate people about existing policy, said RSD  Superintendent Patrick Dobard.

“These things were already in policy. Like literally in bulletin and manuals,” Dobard said. The district made the assumption last year that charters would be familiar with those policies, he said.

Indeed, the timeline listed in the district’s release of return is also listed in BESE Bulletin 129, Recovery School District procedure.

“What we’ve done tonight is laid out the timeline. We have it clearly articulated step by step, so whatever school that has an interest can know how to move forward,” he said.

The policy states that only RSD charters in their fifth operating year that have received school performance scores of 80 or better on a scale of about 200 are eligible to return. If an eligible school wants to return to the School Board, its board must:

  • Apply to the state education board  by Dec. 1.
  • The state board has until Jan. 1 to approve or reject the application.
  • The Orleans Parish School Board must then notify the state board that it agrees.
  • The School Board and the charter manager must negotiate a new charter, to be approved by the state in April.
  • If approved, the charter school will return to School Board control on July 1.

On the issue of autonomy, charter school leaders are most concerned about losing their status as local educational agencies, which gives them control of their share of some federal funding. The School Board is accustomed to taking about 10 percent of that money to cover compliance costs. State law bars School Board charters from functioning as independent educational agencies.

Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian said at the meeting she’s working with the state to try to change that.

In front of a full audience Wednesday, BESE members seemed to be eager to dispel any conception that the state is against a returning schools to the School Board. BESE President Penny Dastugue made that clear after Padian’s presentation to the board:

“I believe that these schools, when they are ready, when the boards are ready, when the families are ready, they should return,” Dastugue said. “This board is not going to stand in the way of a successful school when its board and its community wants to come back to Orleans Parish.”

But in the same breath, Dastugue said she thinks it’s up to the School Board, not the state, to recruit and lure schools back.

Padian says she’s been doing so, having conversations with charter school leaders and determining how many of the 15 charters eligible are willing to make that move. But despite her efforts, and the RSD’s pains to articulate existing return policies, it’s unclear how many of the schools expected to be eligible will choose to do so.

One issue, raised during the public-comment portion of the meeting, is that the policy leaves the decision to return in the hands of the charter operators that run the schools, rather than the students, parents and community members that the schools serve.

“Charter board members are not elected by the people and for the people of that local community. So I’m not sure how the people have their say-so,” resident Kwame Smith said.

That issue was raised for the first time in January, when the community at Martin Behrman Charter School approached BESE  and asked for approval to return to local control. The 500 people who signed the petition to return were not members of the charter school’s board – a board that had not chosen to put its eligible schools back under the School Board.

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...