It’s that odd time of year again in New Orleans when academically improving charter schools must decide if they want to stay with a special state system or rejoin the traditional Orleans Parish School Board.

When the state-created Recovery School District took control of more than 100 schools in 2005, the public presumption was that those schools judged by the state to be failing would one day return to the local school district. A growing number of schools could have made the move in the past four years.

None has.

This is in part because schools are not automatically transferred back to the control of the local school board when their academic standing improves; schools must decide for themselves. And also because, in no small part, charters have expressed their distrust and disgust in the School Board.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.
This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

By Jan. 5, 20 school boards — which oversee 36 charter schools that could have switched — must submit their decisions to the state. Last year, 17 schools could have made the move.

Schools officially were notified of their eligibility to move early this month, making this somewhat of a holiday tradition. Any change would take place for the 2015-16 school year, which starts July 1.

So far, seven boards that run 15 eligible schools have voted to stay with the RSD. Three boards have discussed the matter, but put off the decision until December.

Most discussions follow a familiar pattern: One of a few key people in charge of charters at the Orleans Parish schools gives a standard stump speech and offers to answer questions. A representative from the Recovery School District is generally present but doesn’t always announce himself. But some charter board members have complained that neither members of the Orleans Parish School Board nor the state school board, which oversees the RSD, attend the meetings to make a pitch.

Almost comically, many boards schedule their discussions for the same days and same times, meaning officials from the two big school districts and hangers-on from the press race across the city to make meetings. In fact, four scheduled their meetings this week on the same night as an Orleans Parish School Board regular meeting, and there were three more the next night.

During their pitch, Orleans Board representatives say not a whole lot would change in joining the School Board, but they stress the longtime system can offer access to shared services and district specialists. Above all, they emphasize the easier access to the seven locally elected officials. Two* of the 11 members of the elected state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which generally meets in Baton Rouge, represent portions of New Orleans, and they also oversee a handful of schools in the recovery district elsewhere in the state.

Switching to Orleans Parish oversight would mean a charter operator would answer to the School Board for its academic results and the financial management of the school.

The vast majority of operational decisions — such as outlining curriculum, hiring staff and setting the school calendar — would still be made by the charter’s administration and independent board.

But one board came within one vote of transferring its high school back to the Orleans Parish School Board, which touts its district as ‘A-rated.’

An A-rated district

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation oversees about 2,000 students across four charter schools. Three of its schools are eligible to transfer to Orleans Parish oversight for the next academic year.

It’s important to note most people are using the terms transfer and return interchangeably — even though they imply slightly different meanings about power and ownership of said schools.  New Beginnings’ Pierre Capdau Charter School would ‘return’ to the district if eligible. It was one of the first schools seized by the Recovery School District. The network’s high school would ‘transfer,’ because the high school was formed from merging schools under the RSD’s oversight.

As the New Beginnings board was discussing whether to transfer its schools at a meeting in early November, one member brought up a point he remembered from an earlier presentation by School Board Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian: the OPSB is an A-rated district.

What the School Board’s presentation fails to explain, and some board members seem to misunderstand, is that its exemplary letter grade is almost inherent to the design of the Recovery district. That’s because the RSD took away all of the failing schools and left the best behind.

But this label is appealing to some charter school board members because the RSD’s district score in New Orleans hovered at a C this year.

The School Board’s A rating also includes a handful of selective schools, while Recovery district charters are by design open-enrollment, which means they take all students.

In that same meeting Padian told the New Beginnings board — as she does with all charter boards — that Orleans Parish is ready for Recovery district charters to return. And the board strongly considered the possibility.

Instead of transferring all three schools, one board member pitched the idea of leading the way by moving only one school to the School Board.

In his explanation, he cited the OPSB’s school district score of an A.

The board voted 3-2 to move its high school to the School Board. But the vice chairwoman did not vote and minutes later, at the urging of her colleagues, submitted a late vote in what the board called a 3-3 tie. The board is planning to take up the matter again in December.

Both the Recovery district and Orleans Parish School Board are also marketing themselves based on charter autonomy. While Orleans Parish says outright they have “a record of respecting charter school autonomy” in its presentation, the RSD quietly respects charter autonomy by not taking a public role in the discussion.

The Louisiana Department of Education sent a representative to that New Beginnings meeting, but board members did not even know he was there. Only when a board member called out the RSD for not showing up did the department employee stand up in the back row, introduce himself and say that the department intended to stay hands off as far as transfer decisions go.

Charters question the local School Board

Many of the charter boards cite similar reasons when deciding to remain under Recovery School District control. And they all seem to boil down to the mistrust in the School Board.

Last week, Friends of King Schools voted to remain with the Recovery district. Board members said they did not want to return to a district that couldn’t hire a superintendent. Interim Superintendent Stan Smith has been at the helm for more than two years. There have also been attempts to oust Smith though a majority vote has never prevailed.

New Beginnings board members ultimately thought they might be better off waiting another year. That’s been also said before.

On Tuesday, the board that runs Mary D. Coghill Charter School had similar concerns, regarding the lack of a superintendent and School Board members publicly displaying “bad behavior.”

And on Wednesday, Crescent City Schools’ board of directors questioned the superintendent search, “fractious” board and what it would mean to have two authorizers.

Crescent City Schools runs three schools under the Recovery district, only two of which are eligible to return to the School Board.

Chief Operating Officer Chris Hines said it would “definitely add a layer of complexity to our work to have two schools under one authorizer and one under another.”

Assistant Director of School Performance Sean Perkins was there to answer questions on behalf of the School Board.

“How many charter schools have returned?” member Carolyn Chandler asked.

“As of today, zero,” Perkins said.

The board voted unanimously to stay in the Recovery School District.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said three members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education represent portions of New Orleans.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...