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Refusal to return charter schools to OPSB sign of distrust of locally elected boards

For the third year in a row — every year they’ve had the choice — no Recovery School District charter schools decided to switch to Orleans Parish School Board oversight. The last board that could have moved, Kipp New Orleans Schools, voted against it Thursday night.

Leaders of the 17 schools who opted against moving all voiced similar concerns. The Orleans Parish School Board doesn’t have a permanent superintendent. They were wary, they said, of the board’s rowdy disagreements in public meetings. They were confused about whether they’d get the same special-education funding.

The biggest deterrent, though not always voiced publicly, appears to be a lack of trust. Some charter school leaders not only have a hard time putting their faith in a school district with a marred past, but in the very structure of a locally elected school board. Some don’t have a problem with the school board in general — just the people on it now.

Their objections raise the question: Will they ever be ready to return to OPSB oversight?

At a public forum on Dec. 10, D’Juan Hernandez, who sits on the board of the Algiers Charter School Association, was frank about why he didn’t want to return three of the organization’s six schools to the Orleans Parish School Board.

Elected board members who support charter schools are here today, but can be gone tomorrow: “I know Leslie’s going to do right by me,” Hernandez said, referring to school board member Leslie Ellison, who was in the crowd that night. “But what happens when Leslie’s gone?”

The city’s approximately 46 nonprofit charter boards are not chosen by public election; they’re generally approved by their fellow board members. Critics say that makes the boards insular, although some boards have made an effort to recruit parents and community members.

Questions about local, elected boards

Hernandez and Crescent City Schools board president J.P. Hymel, whose board also unanimously voted not to allow Akili Academy to switch to OPSB, said they don’t completely distrust a locally elected board.

Last year, Hernandez voted to send the three schools to local school board oversight. Many faculty and staff at two schools spoke out in support of the move.

His opinion changed, he said, after watching the “different machinations that OPSB has gone through” in the past year.

Hymel had a similar take. “Educating students is a tough business, and one of the things we always try to do is reduce the amount of uncertainty,” he said. There is “an amount of uncertainty associated with OPSB, certainly subject to various elections.”

The 2012 Orleans Parish School Board elections led to a power shift. Leslie Ellison narrowly beat incumbent member Lourdes Moran, who supported charters.

Ellison, too, has been supportive of charter schools; she’s even served on a charter board. Still, she’s voiced some unpopular opinions, and she allied with Ira Thomas and board member Cynthia Cade to oust interim Superintendent Stan Smith. Such moves have given local charter leaders pause.

Still, power shifts occur on any elected governing body, political consultant Danae Columbus said. And even when some members are appointed, such as the state school board, it matters who’s doing the appointing and whether their agenda aligns with charter leaders’.

“What happens when governors change? What happens when mayors change?” Columbus said.

New Orleans isn’t the only place where charters have been wary of local elected oversight. Fearing that political pressure would cause California school boards to extend applications for underperforming schools, that state’s charter school association backed a bill in 2011 that, among other measures, would limit a local board’s power to renew a low-performing charter.

That bill ultimately failed, but the California Charter Schools Association has continued to push education officials to take tougher looks at underperforming schools.

“I think we know from the national experience … .that closing down an existing school is a tremendously difficult endeavor,” said Myrna Castrejón, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs. It is one that elected boards have difficulty executing, to be honest.”

Ideas for new governance models

There have been multiple calls in recent years to restructure the Orleans Parish School Board. The nonprofit think tank Bureau of Governmental Research and Tulane University’s Cowen Institute have proposed several options.

One is to appoint at least some members of the board. Or one governing body could be responsible for direct-run schools, finances, facilities, and other system-wide planning, while another could oversee charter schools. Another idea: The governing body could oversee everything but facilities, which would be handled by a separate manager.

Another plan, released by the nonprofit Educate Now, run by former local and state school board member Leslie Jacobs, would create three separate boards – an elected body that would manage resources and two appointed bodies that would handle direct-run schools and charters.

Former school board president Torin Sanders’ plan calls for one unified, elected governing board, and for the city’s roughly 46 charter boards to be publicly elected.

School board members have not publicly endorsed one plan over the other. But board member Nolan Marshall has said he would like to see some appointed school board members, and his colleagues Sarah Usdin and Woody Koppel sat on Educate Now’s task force.

Marshall stressed that the board needs broad community input before changing its structure. Federal officials also must clear any proposal due to the Voting Rights Act.

About 20 states around the country have state or local school boards with appointed members, according to the National School Boards Association. Mayors, governors, or city council members typically do the appointing.

Many people in New Orleans don’t want an appointed board, said Raynard Sanders, a longtime critic of the Recovery School District and a former public school principal.

With an elected board, “at least you have people that are held accountable to the local constituents,” he said. “When they are self-appointed like these [charter] board members are, they have no accountability to anybody.”

‘We can’t just say no every year’

Despite the hesitation many boards have about rejoining the Orleans Parish School Board back, some board members appear to be open to the idea.

ACSA needs to be a “thought leader” in deciding what return looks like, Hernandez said. “I believe, down to my core, that we can’t just say no every year.”

New Beginnings board members Leslie Bouie and Shelia Danzey, who joined a unanimous board vote Tuesday to keep Lake Area New Tech Early College High School under RSD governance, expressed reservations about staying with the RSD before they voted.

The school board has its issues, but the RSD “is more subjective in their decisions about which schools are going to be closed,” Danzey said. “Schools in my mind that should be shut down haven’t been, but other schools have been shut down.”

Bouie urged the board to shape the vision of what return would look like. “It’s an extremely important decision … and I believe that you are either going be a driver of change or a victim of change,” she said.

“You can make dust, or eat dust.”

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About 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 reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • The irony of comments like those of Raynard Sanders is, of course, that under the elected, “accountable” Orleans Parish School Board of the pre-Katrina era, Sanders could run John McDonogh Senior High into the ground and never be called to account for it.

    Folks who claim that, “at least you have people that are held accountable to the local constituents” must reckon with one major difficulty with that logic: the deplorable state of New Orleans’ public schools prior to 2005. Do they claim that the district’s abject failure in nearly every respect reflected “the will of the people?” Were decades of failure what the citizens of New Orleans demanded from their school system? And, if not, then how does returning to that same governance system address that disparity?

    We need a structure that insulates the decision-making process from the whims of politicians – including many of the embarrassing individuals who currently sit on the school board.

  • nickelndime

    “You can make dust, or eat dust.” Well, I’ve got a quote that applies and its paraphrasing involves horses. “YOU CAN LEAD A HO TO WATER BUT YOU CAN’T MAKE HER THINK.” What a bunch of lillies! And shame on Nolan Marshall Jr./II for suggesting that some OPSB seats should be appointed. District 7 – OPSB – your vote was wasted.

  • disqus_qtvF4sydqM

    And OPSB is paying Kathleen Padian to be its Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools to do what now? Maybe if they release that particular “at will” employee, returning to the district might be more attractive.

  • Ira, Padian is probably one of the best employees in the district. Why don’t you stop maligning her and focus on losing the sheriff’s race?

  • nickelndime

    If Kathleen Padian, Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools, is one of the best employees that the District (as in OPSB) has, then please, I do not want to see the worst. LOL and rolling, rolling, rolling on da river. This is like Ike and Tina all over again. Somebody is being abused. Tina is smart, and Peter is smart. So, what’s the problem?!!

  • Alan Maclachlan

    There are quite understandable reasons–grounded in past performance of that organization–for Charter Boards to mistrust control by the OPSB as a potential source of future chaos and uncertainty.

    At the same time there are also other reasons–grounded in Charter Board’s current autonomy to grant fat salaries to cronies and to enter into (sometimes lucrative) agreements with politically allied profiteers–for Charter Boards to mistrust the OPSB as a potential source of future meddling and restrictions upon their (sometimes self serving) actions.

    What a fine kettle of fish we find ourselves in, Stanley!

  • nickelndime

    Previously, I thought that public education in this city was as corrupt as it could get. Local corruption is bad enough, but in retrospect, the OPSB looks like Mickey Mouse playing “good cop, bad cop.” The U.S. Department of Education is a funding source through which billions of dollars in public money flow into particular (favored) nonprofits (e.g., TFA, NSNO, etc.) and through corrupt charter boards. Administrators (CEOs, etc.) are rewarded with 6-figure salaries for keeping the dog-and-pony show going (RSD and OPSB charters). The RSD and New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) target and monetarily reward (with public education dollars) certain nonprofits which act in alignment with the State’s corporate plan to seize control of local public education. The OPSB will not win any eligible schools back in the near future. For one thing, the OPSB is divided, and some members (particularly Usdin) like it that way because it thwarts local control and a unified voice. The OPSB cannot even put togther 4 votes in a consistent manner, and it takes 5 votes to fire a superintendent.

  • (Clapping sound) Bravo, Ira! Right on! Keep the BS coming. It’s all NSNO, TFA, and Sarah Usdin’s fault…Yeah, this is the best stand-up routine I’ve seen in a while.

  • MacCoon

    no, we need a system that insulates our children from the whims of corporate boards who see students as profit margin statistics and are destroying the teaching profession while replacing it with temps. this refusal to acknowledge public will is patently undemocratic and should be stopped in its tracks.

  • nickelndime

    By gawd, I think MacCoon is onto something! “corporate boards” STOP “students as profit margin statistics” STOP “destroying the teaching profession” STOP “temps” BULLSEYE!!!

  • Shermaine Barthelemy

    First and foremost, why is the decisions to return the schools back to OPSB left up to those that control Charter Schools anyway? Secondly, give me a poll on the folks that really think that Charter Schools are so so great, where do their kids go to school? There are so many people telling us that the Charter Schools are so great and they are not even the ones that are suffering at the schools on a daily basis. The truth should be told, there are more individuals that work at Charter Schools that are not qualified, yet certified. There are teachers teaching at these Charter Schools that have not even taken an education course of any sorts and that have not even taken child psychology class that allows at least an insight into dealing with a child. The people in our schools don’t care about the community that they are servicing and only want to mandate what they think is correct. There is more to the story and there is more about charters than meets the eye. It is a shame that we have begun to jump on the bandwagon of what others say about our children and communities and act as if we need a savior of sorts. All these Charter School Association being lead by European Americans (white people) as if they are the “Great White Hope!” The playing field is not level and it never will be with, especially with idiotic individuals that really don’t give a damn about the people, but about a dollar. It is time that we tell the truth and stop hiding behind the new found way of suppression and dehumanization which is leading us to modern day mental slavery.