Board president Thomas Robichaux

The Orleans Parish School Board has finally escaped a state designation that has stigmatized it for the past eight years. Its financial status is no longer deemed “high-risk,” board president Thomas Robichaux announced Thursday.

The state Department of Education first slapped the high-risk label on the School Board in 2004, after the then-bankrupt district was unable to account for more than $70 million in federal grants.

While burdened with that status, the board was denied up-front allocations and instead had to seek reimbursement after demonstrating that it had run up eligible expenses, Robichaux said.

That made the district hesitant to even apply for big-ticket federal grants, such as the millions available through the Race to The Top program, Robichaux said.

“What it means, essentially, is more financial freedom for the district,” he added.

The district first requested to have the label removed in 2008. To do so required meeting stringent criteria: payments had to be kept timely and the board needed to make sure its charters accounted accurately for how they spent their grant money.

Robichaux has repeatedly called the end of high-risk status  “a major deal”, and he hopes it will encourage more charters to come back to the School Board’s fold.

“It opens the final door to return of eligible schools to the OPSB and by giving those schools confidence in our fiscal and management practices,” he said.

About 15 charter schools are eligible to return to OPSB control this year and, if they choose to do so, must make their intention known to state officials by December 1.

But the high-risk label, now peeled off, is not the only reason charter schools have been reluctant to accept OPSB management. They also worry about losing their status as independent districts and with it control of their federal grants.  The School Board customarily skims about 10 percent off each grant in exchange for handling compliance issues.

School Board officials say they are working with the state to assure charter schools their independence.

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...