At their November meeting, FirstLine board members adopted a list of five guiding principles for governance, unanimously elected two new board members and viewed a lengthy development committee presentation focused on raising money to replace fading start-up and turn-around money for FirstLine schools.
“New Orleans has a rare opportunity to set up a structure that will facilitate the long-term success of schools after this generation of leaders is gone,” said CEO Jay Altman, speaking about the governance guidelines. “Whatever the plan is, it should do five things,” he said. The five guidelines are as follows:
- Ensure choices for parents. They should have choices as to where their children attend school other than the neighborhood school or a magnet school that the students have to test into, according to Altman.
- Autonomy. Schools are to be in charge of operational school-level decisions, such as budgeting, staffing and curriculum.
- Accountability to produce results.
- Transparency. What results are the schools producing, and how are they managing their finances?
- Equity. This includes issues like special education, enrollment decisions, expulsions, facility assignments and resource allocations.
“I think these are five very reasonable guidelines that any future system of governance has to be aligned with,” said Altman.
Although the board voted unanimously to approve the principles, there was discussion about separation of powers and the generic nature of the guidelines.
“I just feel like it was a very weak statement that doesn’t reflect what is needed in our community to drive towards school excellence,” said Stephen Rosenthal, chairman of the finance committee. “It looks to me like it was written by charter schools. You can’t own the NFL team, hire the refs and make the rules.”
Two new members, attorneys George Freeman and Christian Rhodes, were unanimously elected to serve on the board.
According to his firm’s website, “Mr. Freeman is a founding member of Barrasso, Usdin, Kupperman, Freeman And Sarver: Counselors at Law. He concentrates in complex commercial litigation.” Freeman has been an adjunct professor at Tulane University Law School for 25 years, and has served on the Board of Directors of Trinity Episcopal School, Langston Hughes Academy, and on the Tulane Cancer Center Community Advisory Board.
Operating out of both the New Orleans and Baton Rouge offices of Roedel-Parsons Law Firm, Christian Rhodes is a former Pentagon legal analyst. He served as British Petroleum’s liaison to Bobby Jindal, and is a board member of Liberty’s Kitchen, a non-profit entity providing culinary training and employment to at-risk youth in New Orleans.
During the development committee report, chairperson Catherine Pierson said, “The reason we do development is because there is always a gap between what it costs to educate our students and what we get from the state. When you turn a school around or start up a school, there is a lot of excitement about the charter school movement, so there is a lot of money coming in that is slowly going away, therefore the gap will probably persist.”
FirstLine has raised $2.5 million, but still needs $1.3 million for three current projects. The first is the Personalized Learning expansion which, according to Pierson, helps student achievement while lowering the cost of educating students.
Altman concurred, and said “The reason Personalized Learning isn’t a recurring cost is that it is adding computer-assisted instruction to schools and not only is that personalized, but it frees up teachers to work with small groups more. Once we get the initial infrastructure, it’s set on a three-year depreciation scale, which is sustainable.”
The next project discussed was Clark Prep Support, which includes $30,000 for band uniforms and $80,000 for instruments. So far FirstLine has raised $4,000 this year.
The final project is the expansion of the playground surrounding Arthur Ashe. Additional funding is also needed for operating costs, school budgets and professional development. As part of the development comittee’s presentation, guest speaker Claudia Barker, executive director of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESY NOLA), led the board in a brain-storming exercise. Members were encouraged to think of friends, acquaintances and business associates who would be open to invitations to tour the school or attend school fund-raising events. The goal is to form more business connections for FirstLine’s schools.
ESY NOLA is a signature program of FirstLine that maintains edible gardens at each of the board’s five locations.
The board also discussed unique challenges facing to Clark Prep, FirstLine’s only high school. These include truancy and homelessness, problems that board members say have been nearly completely alleviated since FirstLine took over the school in 2011.
The two hour meeting was called to order by board member Lawrence Kullman at 5:15pm.