The Orleans Parish School Board seeks to reclaim eligible Recovery School District charters. File photo

Under the state’s original timeline, 13 charter schools would have been faced with a decision on Dec. 1—little more than two weeks from now—on whether to switch to Orleans Parish School Board governance.

That’s after finding out only last month that the decision was theirs to make.

But under a new timeline, to be debated at a public meeting tonight, they could get an additional month to make the decision, time in which to harvest feedback from parents and other interested parties.

Community and parental feedback would provide a degree of cover for what are certain to be controversial decisions, no matter what the schools opt to do.

Critics of Act 35, the two-year-old law that outlines the process for Recovery School District schools to submit to governance by the Orleans Parish School Board, have complained  that it leaves the decision in the hands of the independent charter board running the school, rather than giving parents, community members and other stakeholders a say.

The issue was brought to the forefront in January after the Algiers Charter School Association’s board elected to keep Martin Behrman Charter School within the Recovery School District. A grassroots group of 500 petitioned the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, claiming that community members, parents, and teachers preferred governance by the Orleans Parish School Board. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state took over failing Orleans schools—an overwhelming majority—and gave them to the Recovery School District to manage.

The new deadline is up for consideration tonight at the state school board’s quarterly meeting in New Orleans, at Sophie B. Wright Charter School, on Napoleon Avenue. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. The head of the Orleans Parish School Board’s charter school office, Kathleen Padian, requested the date change. To alert as many stakeholders as possible, she said she’s been trying to publicize board meeting schedules of the schools faced with the decision.  But some of the board meetings are at inconvenient times—“like noon on a weekday,” she said—which could make it hard for parents to show up and voice their opinions.

No matter how much feedback schools get, it’s likely that any decision to switch will be most influenced by how much of their administrative and classroom autonomy remains intact—an outcome that’s still uncertain.

A narrow window

Schools found out they were eligible only last month, when school performance scores were released indicating which of them met minimum state standards and thus qualified to switch, if they so desired. Before then, the main indicators of eligibility were  standardized test scores from last May, a major factor in the calculation of performance scores, and the School Board’s own preliminary eligibility list, which listed 14 schools.

Only 13 of the 14 actually passed muster, however. Sophie B. Wright Charter School missed the mark because of a low graduation rate, school leader Sharon Clark said. Graduation rates, as well as attendance and other factors, figure in a school’s eligibility. A school with a performance score of 80 or higher that has been in the Recovery School District for at least five years is eligible to make the switch.

Under the old timeline, they would have learned in late October whether they were eligible and then would have had to gather feedback from stakeholders and bring the issue to a vote at their November board meetings. The Dec. 1 deadline left little opportunity for parent engagement, Padian said.

Gauging interest

Some schools have already tried to include parents in the conversation. KIPP New Orleans, which runs four of the 13 eligible schools, is one of them. Director of Advocacy Jonathan Bertsch says the board has discussed “the OPSB question” at its past two board meetings and has had school community meetings at each of the charters eligible to return. The meetings were publicized on notices posted at the schools and in letters sent home to parents. Parents who weren’t able to attend the meetings were encouraged to submit feedback in writing, he said. The board will hear all parent feedback before it makes its decision at a Nov. 29 board meeting.

“So far, the response from families is generally that they want the schools to remain in their current governance structure,” Bertsch said. “We haven’t seen any parents who expressed a strong desire to return to OPSB.”

Other schools haven’t gathered feedback as intensively, often for lack of time.  “We just met with the RSD yesterday and found out that the timeline got extended,” said Adrian Morgan, the interim head of the Algiers group. This year, three of the group’s schools are eligible to return. “Now that we know we’ve got more time, we’re trying to figure out what we’re going for.” Stakeholder opinion will be considered in any move the board makes, he said.

Finally, Crescent City Schools, the board that runs the eligible Akili Academy, moved its return of schools discussion from its November to its December meeting. The board alternates meeting locations between the two schools it runs, Akili and Harriet Tubman Charter School. The December meeting will be at Akili, ensuring that Akili’s stakeholders can speak on the issue, school leader Kate Mehok said. They’ll advertise that meeting like they advertise all others, she added.

Schools’ concerns

Though school leaders say they’re weighing their options and gaining as much input as possible, any move they make will depend on whether the terms are right—and a big concern for many schools is a loss of some autonomy.

Padian has responded by working with state education officials to try to address the autonomy issues. But it’s not an easy fix, she said. Under state law, charter schools authorized by local school boards are not considered independent agencies, which means that the school board acts as conduit for some of those schools’ federal dollars. The board gets to collect an administrative fee for managing that money – cash that would otherwise remain with the charter school.

“It would probably require a legislative change, is what they’ve told us,” Padian said. She hasn’t heard much more than that, and she says the law is structured to make it unattractive for schools to come back. “It’s not a real choice,” she said, because once charters experience that autonomy, they aren’t going to want to lose it.

An attempt at consensus

The independence issue is one that Caroline Roemer Shirley, the head of the state’s charter school association, knows all too well. Shirley first began approaching schools months ago, trying to gain some sense of what they wanted from the local school board, and then codifying those terms and asking the charter boards to endorse it. The petition identified charter autonomy and school board transparency as “non-negotiable.”

Charter boards had until Oct. 19 to endorse the petition, but as of that date, only one board, Crescent City Schools, had done so.  Shirley said her organization hasn’t done a follow-up. “There’s no real deadline, as the idea is merely to push a dialogue at the school level,” she said.

At least one other school board, New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, which runs Sylvanie Williams College Prep and Cohen College Prep—neither of which is yet eligible to return—has endorsed the petition, according to a survey of schools by The Lens. It did so on Tuesday night.

Members of the Friends of King School Board, which runs Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, a school eligible to leave the Recovery School District, said at a Wednesday board meeting that they didn’t know about the petition. Board members seemed to agree with its principles, however. The biggest issues are those of autonomy, board counsel Tracie Washington said.

Padian said she didn’t know about the petition before Shirley sent it out to charter schools. “It felt like an attack,” she said.  “Most of it,” including transparency and respecting choice in general, “we’re already doing.”

In terms of autonomy, though, the board is limited in what it can offer, because “we’re bound by charter school law,” she said.

Josh Johnston contributed reporting. 

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...