A group of “concerned citizens” has put together a petition to oust the charter operator at John McDonogh Senior High School.
More than 180 community members signed a petition requesting removal of the charter organization, Future is Now Schools, its board and its chief executive officer, Steve Barr. The petition was created following a contentious meeting in January, and has attracted signatures ever since, according to community member and 1982 John McDonogh graduate Frank Buckley. Buckley helped organize the petition and a community group called C6, which stands for Conscience Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes.
“This charter operator has proven to be ineffective, and damaging to the students that attend the school,” the petition reads.
The petition goes on to list the community group’s frustrations, ranging from failure to deliver promised iPads for each student to Barr’s past financial oversight of charter schools.
Community members were also upset about the portrayal of John McDonogh students in the reality television series “Blackboard Wars,” which referred to John McDonogh as one of the “most dangerous schools in America.” “Blackboard Wars” debuted on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Buckley said that C6 has plans to send the petition to the Department of Education, in hopes that the school will be restored to management by a school district, rather than to another charter board. Even though the school is currently operated under the Recovery School District, Buckley said that C6 hopes for John Mac and other schools within the RSD to ultimately return to the Orleans Parish School Board.*
The petition isn’t the first time that the charter operator’s competence has been brought into question. In a February letter, board members Judith Dangerfield and Vaughn Fauria threatened to resign over decisions made by Future is Now “without the consent of the [governing] body.”
Dangerfield and Fauria said in the letter that Future is Now leaders failed to follow state open-meetings law when they abruptly canceled the February board meeting.
“The statement released to the press that the meeting was canceled by the members of the board is patently false, as there was no action, formal or informal, taken by the board,” they said in the letter.
According to Future Is Now Schools, the February meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum.
Dangerfield and Fauria also touched on their concerns involving “Blackboard Wars.”
“The contractual relationship between the school and the producers of the television series is also questionable, as there was no action of the board to enter into the agreement,” the letter reads.
The letter goes on to say that the board was advised that they would be consulted prior to any formal agreement with Disney and/or the Winfrey network, but that the show was ready to air before any consultation could take place.
Later, in a March meeting, Dangerfield that she and Fauria planned to propose the creation of compliance committees to evaluate the Future is Now charter management operator and its executive board.
“What we’re trying to do is be good board members,” Dangerfield said. “We accepted a role to be accountable to the community, and what we’re looking for at this point is our role in decision making. At the end of the day the community is looking at us to hold Future is Now accountable.”
News about the petition comes on the heels of a story on the school’s budget woes, which recently threatened the school’s April 30 payroll.
Steve Barr, the head of the school’s management organization, sent an email to the school board members on April 11 describing “cash flow challenges” that stem in part from lower than expected enrollment at the school.
The school planned its $6.3 million budget based on a projected enrollment of 480 students, but had fewer than 390 as of the Oct. 1 headcount — a problem given that state funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis.
According to budget figures given to The Lens, the school had a negative income balance of nearly $358,000 by the end of March, a hole that is about $154,000 larger than leaders expected this time of year.
Total revenues — from state, local and federal sources as well as private donors — were $1.4 million below what they expected by the end of March.
The email, which was signed by Future is Now Schools chief operating officer Chris Lozier, promised a new budget by the end of last week. As of Tuesday, public relations director Tracy Mallozzi said that the board is still working on it.
“They’re getting millions of dollars, and they don’t care to educate these kids,” Buckley said to the Lens, citing grants that the startup charter has received.
For example, Future is Now Schools has received nearly $300,000 from the Moriah Fund, a private organization; $150,000 from the New Schools Venture Fund, and $800,000 in a federal i3 startup grant intended for John McDonogh.
Community members have frequently sounded off at board meeting to express concern about where John McDonogh’s money is going.
This isn’t the first time Barr has encountered difficulties in his financial oversight of charter schools. When he was CEO of Green Dot Charter Schools, tax records showed that Barr had to repay the organization more than $50,000 after an internal audit characterized some of his expenses as “extravagant.”
Barr wasn’t immediately available for comment for this article but in the past has defended John McDonogh’s budgeting as well as its cooperation with producers of “Blackboard Wars.”
Barr said that while the hype surrounding the show has been negative, those who watched the series would have seen motivated students and hardworking staff.
“I think the show is very positive for kids,” he said.
As to the financial concerns, he said, it’s part of the ebb and flow of public school management: “I think if you look at school financing in most schools, there are periods where you tighten your belt and your cash flow is low.”
In the past, Barr has also agreed with Dangerfield and Fauria concerning the board’s transparency and need for clear governance. He has said he would like to see one parent, one student and one teacher serving on the executive board.
“Trust and follow-through has been missing for so long,” Barr said. “In five years, we would love to have such a good board and such ownership that, unlike other charter operators, we say this is yours now.”
*Correction: Frank Buckley said his organization would like to see John McDonogh Senior High School return to Orleans Parish School District control. An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that he would like it returned to the Recovery School District.