More charter schools now eligible to join Orleans Parish School Board, but will any take the leap?

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One of the key obstacles to convincing Recovery School District charter schools to switch to the Orleans Parish School Board — a loss of some money and some autonomy — was resolved during this year’s legislative session.

But that law didn’t resolve some school leaders’ lingering concerns about the leadership and management of the Orleans Parish school system. Nor did it address other organizational and funding issues of moving to parish oversight.

Ten RSD charter operators, overseeing 17 schools, will decide in the next two months whether to switch to the Orleans Parish School Board. Although some operators have been eligible to move for three years, no one has done so yet.

If any do, it will be a sign of faith in a board with a history of internal conflict and financial missteps. Though academic performance and financial management have vastly improved under the post-Hurricane Katrina administration and board leadership, the district today isn’t spot-free. It still has no permanent leader, and factions on the board have quarreled at public meetings, causing some educators to wonder if the board is ready to manage their schools.

Last week, the board overseeing New Orleans College Prep unanimously voted against moving Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary to Orleans Parish oversight.

The charter organization runs four schools; Sylvanie Williams is the only one eligible to switch. That means the charter group would have to deal with the RSD and OPSB, which would be too complicated, said New Orleans College Prep CEO Ben Kleban.

He’s also wary of becoming part of a dysfunctional local school system. Arguments have erupted at several public meetings in the past year and a half over the interim superintendent’s qualifications, the racial makeup of the school system’s administration and contracts awarded to women- and minority-owned businesses.

“There’s seems to be a lot there that isn’t about improving outcomes for kids … and those are the big questions I’m considering,” Kleban said.

The absence of a permanent superintendent — the spot has been vacant for about a year and a half — means there’s “a real risk” for school leaders considering a move, Kleban said.

Will any of these schools move to the parish school system? “I don’t think we are going to see that happen anytime soon,” he said.

Collegiate Academies president Morgan Ripski and New Beginnings Network CEO Sametta Brown wouldn’t say whether they think their boards will switch to OPSB, but they echoed Kleban’s concern about answering to more than one school district.

 The Lens spoke with representatives of eight of the 10 charter organizations; they either declined to speak on the record or said it was up to their board to decide.

17 schools can switch this year

To be eligible to move to Orleans Parish oversight, a school must have been in the RSD for at least four years, and have a 2012 school performance score of 80 or above and a 2013 score of 54 or above.

The Recovery School District will present the list of schools eligible for return at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s quarterly meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday. Schools were notified of their eligibility in late October. They must inform BESE of their decision by Jan. 2.

The schools are:

  • Lake Area New Tech Early College High School
  • Sci Academy
  • L.B. Landry-O. P. Walker College and Career Preparatory High School

  • KIPP Central City Academy

  • KIPP Central City Primary

  • KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts

  • KIPP Believe College Prep

  • Akili Academy of New Orleans

  • Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary

  • Samuel J. Green Charter School

  • Arthur Ashe Charter School

  • Langston Hughes Academy

  • Dr. King Charter School

  • Morris Jeff Community School

  • Lafayette Academy Charter School

  • Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy of Global Studies

Independent status issue cleared

Earlier this year, legislators dealt with a key reason that many schools rejected a move to the OPSB. A new law allows RSD charters to keep their status as local educational agencies if they return to their local school board. That status enables them to receive some federal funds directly.

The Orleans Parish School Board acts as a conduit for the federal dollars that go to its charters; it takes a portion of those grants to help pay for overhead.

RSD charters, which handle all of their own grants accounting, keep that administrative portion. Under the new law, that won’t change if a school decides to return to its parish school system.

State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, sponsored the bill after educators told him this issue was “not the sole concern, but a primary concern” for school leaders considering a switch.

Contentious board meetings a signal of trouble?

School board president Ira Thomas has often been at the center of the public disagreements that have raised eyebrows.

At a meeting last year, Thomas even said that the school board had systematically discriminated against its black leadership by paying interim Superintendent Stan Smith and Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian more than black employees in leadership positions.

In response to charter leaders’ concerns, Thomas said his critics don’t understand that such disputes are the board’s way of working through problems.

“If you have a governing body, you are going to have those kinds of disagreements,” he said. “This notion that this kind of debate and discussion between the board is an issue for charters in their decision to return, I don’t understand that.”

Thomas also pointed out that the board would have a permanent superintendent in place soon. It’s expected to select a leader next year.

Special-education funding in question

One open question about moving to parish oversight is special-education funding.

By BESE policy, the RSD distributes state special-education funding to each school based on the number of special-needs students and the level of their disability. But the Orleans Parish School Board, along with the rest of the state’s traditional districts, gives each of its schools the same amount for each special-needs student a year, regardless of the severity of a child’s disability.

The state hasn’t decided which method will be used to distribute money to charters that return to local oversight, Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry said.

Schools with high numbers of students with severe disabilities would prefer the RSD’s distribution method. Even Orleans Parish School Board comptroller Wayne DeLarge said he prefers it.

Although State Superintendent John White proposed earlier this year changing the per-pupil funding method to include this sort of weighted special-education funding, state lawmakers rejected the change. Critics said there was no evidence that the new formula would boost special-needs students’ graduation rates.

Board wooing charter leaders

Since the School Performance Scores were released, Padian has been talking with eligible school leaders and board presidents about how Orleans Parish oversight would work.

She said she will present a draft contract for a “3B” charter school, the classification for any RSD charter that switches, at the school board’s accountability committee meeting on Thursday.

And when charter boards take up the issue at their upcoming meetings, Orleans Parish School Board staff will be on hand to answer questions.

The most important thing school leaders should remember about the process, she said, is that it is inclusive. “There’s this feeling, it seems like, that it’s a school-leader decision, and it really should be a school-community decision.”

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