A last-minute switch drastically altered the charge of the state’s highest school board in developing a controversial funding formula aimed at Orleans Parish students.

They didn’t have to.

That task will fall unexpectedly to the Orleans Parish School Board, something board President Seth Bloom learned only last night.

The formula will determine how state money is distributed to all Orleans Parish students, with a greater amount going to students with disabilities, students deemed gifted, those just learning English and over-age students.  Right now the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District have different formulas. A draft of a unified formula essentially moves money from gifted students to disabled students.

State Superintendent John White took a narrow view of Act 467, the law which requires a new funding mechanism for any parish with a certain population, a provision that makes it applicable only to New Orleans. He interpreted the law to mean that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education merely has to approve the different categories and tiers for funding, but not an actual formula applied to those tiers.

“You are not approving a funding formula,” White advised the board.

That’s despite the fact that very item they were voting on was called “Consideration of the Orleans Parish Differentiated Funding Formula,” and that he tweeted out earlier in the day that the board would consider money for students with disabilities.

white tweet

Instead, he said, they were simply setting the “characteristics and needs” of students who should receive extra funding. That punts the tough decision of which students need more money to the Orleans Parish School Board.

White acted as if this had been the plan all along. But White’s narrow definition directly contradicted a related, proposed changes to BESE policy, on the agenda next for consideration. Most of the room discovered that when board member Gary Jones raised the issue after hours of public comment.

The initial change in course took many by surprise. Even board members appeared confused by the switch, asking if they could amend the motion on the floor to clear things up.

Encore Academy CEO Terri Smith, who came to speak in support of what’s technically known as differentiated funding, was also taken aback.

“We all came here thinking we were going to be talking about the weighted formula — not just the characteristics,” Smith said during public comment.

The funding debate in New Orleans has not focused on who should receive extra money. Educators and parents generally agree the target populations cost more to educate than a typical student.

Department staff did not present specific dollar amounts or the weighted formula that a working group approved the week before, though the supporting documents on the agenda had some of that information. RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard publicly endorsed the specifics of the formula in advance of the meeting.

That meant Thursday’s agenda item, as it was amended, didn’t mean much. It was approved unanimously but only after hours of public comment, much of that from people who drove from New Orleans to speak on the formula.

It’s unclear if threatened legal action from the Lusher and Lake Forest charter schools had anything to do with the change of heart. Attorney James Brown, who represents both schools, said he sent demand letters, a precursor to filing a lawsuit, to BESE, White and Orleans Parish superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. He also contends Orleans Parish schools should be treated like all others across the state and follow one formula.

“What is so different about special-needs kids in New Orleans, that makes them different than special needs kids everywhere else?” he asked. “The state rates are designed to address that.”

White countered that New Orleans is different because, unlike parishwide districts elsewhere, money can’t easily be shifted from school to school to account for large special populations that need more money.

Brown said the committee’s change of heart clearly showed they were running up against legal issues.

Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry said the shift was simply the result of BESE’s role in the process. While the working group outlined specific weights that would provide  up to $22,000 for the students who require the most special-education services, Landry and White said that was not the board’s concern.

The specific numbers released by the working group led the leaders at selective-admissions schools to cry foul. That’s because they educate relatively few special-education students but have many gifted students. Leaders at Lusher, Lake Forest and Audubon charter schools contend they’ll lose millions over the coming years, despite a proposed provision that would cap their losses at 2 percent.

Mickey Landry, CEO of Choice Foundation, said he was under the impression the board would be considering the whole formula.

“They threw us a knuckleball,” Landry said.

When he spoke to the committee he asked that they consider adding funding for students who’ve suffered emotional trauma and students with needs outside the scope.

“I’m happy that you all are moving this discussion to the city of New Orleans,” he said.

Deirdre Johnson-Burel, director of the Orleans Parent Education Network, said she is happy BESE avoided the financial decision. It is something that ought to be decided locally, she said.

Parent Harold Bailey was there to support the proposal and wanted to make sure the board knew it, whether that’s what they were voting on or not.

“I took off from work today. So I’m gonna say what I want,” he said. “The categories should be approved as it was presented to you guys by the working group.”

Bailey, whose son is attending his second RSD charter school after Lagniappe Academy was closed last year, urged the board to include parents in the next working group.

Another parent, who is also a teacher, went further and questioned why the group didn’t include a parent of a special-education student.

The law that set all of this in motion gave broad parameters as to who should be on the working group, but there was no mention of parents, only advocates of students with disabilities. It also required the group to include representatives from “any affected local school board.” Potentially, that could include the more than 40 school boards that operate schools in the city because the funding change will affect nearly all charters.

But the working group had only 12 members, including both superintendents, three OPSB school leaders, three RSD school leaders and a handful of community organizations.

The Orleans Parish School Board has committee meetings scheduled for March 10, and a full board meeting on March 15.

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...