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.
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.”