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Choice leaders halt plans to move to church as renovation turns to ‘unmitigated mess’

A month after deciding to move ahead with plans to relocate its headquarters to a newly renovated spot at Grace Episcopal Church, Choice Foundation leaders on Wednesday decided it won’t be possible.

Board chairman Jim Huger reported that the cost estimates for the renovations spiraled from $625,000 to now $1.6 million, describing the situation as an “unmitigated mess.”

Choice, which oversees Lafayette Academy, Esperanza and McDonough 42 charter schools, started making plans more than a year ago to relocate the organization’s headquarters at the church as well as to house prekindergarten and kindergarten classes there.

Now, the board plans to sue the architect it believes is responsible.

Board vice-chairman James Swanson is a managing partner at Fishman Haygood, the law firm which board members said will represent Choice in a lawsuit against Sizeler Thompson Brown.

Swanson said he anticipated the Foundation would be able to recover the $400,000 already invested into the site, but that legal proceedings will take time and “everything is on hold” in the meantime.

Huger said the foundation’s “whole financial life” is in the hands of Fishman Haygood. The board did not discuss further details.

Choice board member Alysson Mills is also an attorney at Fishman Haygood.

Mickey Landry, Choice’s executive director, said he’d been talking with officials at the Louisiana Department of Education about finding effective solutions for dealing with highly disruptive students in charter schools.

Landry said state Superintendent John White has agreed to meet with Landry and other charter leaders about providing services for these students.

Landry said Lafayette Academy has lost students and teachers all year due to a few students, and administrators’ attempts to permanently expel one male student have led only to him being removed for a temporary time.

Board member J. Storey Charbonnet pressed Landry, saying the board has a “fiduciary responsibility for teachers,” and the lack of action by White and the district for years as it relates to highly disruptive students has to “stain” their reputations.

Huger suggested a board subcommittee meet to discuss this issue in the near future.

Fran Trujillo, principal at McDonough 42, said the current count of returning and new students for the 2013-14 school year is 325. This year, 487 attend the school.

Trujillo said that many students are not returning due to a “lack of commitment to the school because it’s not a community yet.” For the next two school years, the school will move to the former Carver Elementary building on Almonaster Avenue. Trujillo believes the move is another contributing factor to low re-enrollment.

Susan Jurkunas, systems accountability officer for Choice schools, led an in-depth presentation about student achievement at all three schools.

Using data from math and English testing, student performance was measured on current Louisiana grade-level expectations and Core Curriculum benchmarks, the standards that will be used starting in spring 2014.

Most students are not currently achieving the foundation’s goal of 80% mastery on current standards, and are performing at lower levels on the new Core Curriculum measures. Landry cited the nationwide “implementation dip” expected to accompany the more rigorous standards of the new Core Curriculum.

Treasurer M. “Fritz” Gomila, Jr. reported the current $866,614 was a “low point” in the foundation’s total liquidity. He attributed this to per-pupil funding from the state’s Minimum Foundation Program taking time to reflect this year’s higher student enrollment.

At  the April 24th meeting, the board will present the mid-year proposed revised budget and allow public comment.

Less than half of the board members were present when the meeting began at 4:15 p.m., with Asher Friend, Dewana Hill and Treasurer M. “Fritz” Gomila, Jr. arriving late. Jim Huger, Jim Swanson, J. Storey Charbonnet, Robert Evans, Susie DeRussy, Alysson Mills and Laura Sillars attended.

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  • nickelndime

    I guess Huger won’t be putting his $500,000 up, as he stated in a previous meeting. Maybe Huger’s chances of getting repaid (with public money) has also sunk to a new low, along with the nonprofit’s liquidity. There are too many administrators and non-teaching personnel in these charter schools who are being grossly overpaid (Mickey Landry for starters). Yet, the State has continued to award the Choice Foundation (one of its favorites) more schools to run. And it’s not because the group’s academic performance is good (let us not forget the cheating investigation – which Landry “said” was unfounded). Obviously, the LDOE/RSD (with the help of New Schools for New Orleans – NSNO) do not know what constitutes “quality” when it comes to “creating” and “selecting” charter management organizations (CMO). Is “C” good enough? (this group wishes it had a “C” average in its portfolio). And, if this board would enroll its own children and grandchildren in the schools it oversees (that’s a harsh sounding word), maybe it wouldn’t be losing enrollment and/or money. And the solution to dealing with problem students is not getting rid of them or putting them somewhere else. Aren’t the schools that the Choice Foundation runs good enough for board members, or is it just good enough for the other guy’s children (and not their own)?

  • nickelndime

    Looks like dysfunctional attracts dysfunctional. What I would like to know is when “them that gots” gots the power to tell “them that don’t gots” what’s best for everybody else, but not themselves.