The Orleans Parish charter-school financing saga continued Tuesday night as educators and parents spoke in favor of a new funding formula the School Board didn’t have the authority to approve.
The School Board’s evening began with a solid 40 minutes of frantic pre-meeting small-group conferencing among School Board members, Recovery School District staff, and the superintendents and lawyers from both districts.
The obvious discomfort wasn’t exactly surprising given the delicate topic they were dealing with: a unified funding formula for nearly all of the city’s charter schools that shifts money from gifted and talented students to students with special needs. It’s also a formula the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education wiggled its way out of approving earlier this month.
The shuffling and gathering of groups, including some of up to three School Board members, included the eventual distribution of a document to what appeared to be all board members. The Lens asked for a copy of the document, but the board secretary said she didn’t have it.
This was quickly explained by the board’s immediate series of substitute motions to kick off the funding discussion, none of which the public, or board members, seemed to understand completely. The substitute resolution dropped references to the state Legislature’s Act 467, the law requiring a new formula for Orleans Parish, and the working group that created the new formula.
Then for more than two hours, members of the board and public commented on a resolution that was only read aloud once; the final resolution also included an amendment that clarified charter law. Board members appeared to have a copy. The public did not.
Just before the commenting kicked off, board member John Brown Sr. brought everyone in the room back together and asked to simplify things. He asked the question everyone had been avoiding.
“Did [Act] 467 give us any authority to approve what has been done with by that committee?” Brown asked.
Attorney Bob Hammonds, a special consultant to the School Board, answered.
“There is nothing in this act that gives the local school board the authority to approve or disapprove the formula that was arrived at,” he said.
Hammonds said it has always been the duty of a district’s superintendent to distribute money as he or she sees fit, and this formula doesn’t change that responsibility of Superintendent Henderson Lewis.
“He’s going to have to come to you with recommendations on the utilization of funds in your district,” Hammonds said.
He further explained that the state money is sent to each district as a chunk of money, allowing each district to decide how to divide it.
“That’s why they call the MFP a block grant,” Hammonds said.
Even though charter schools are, for the most part, independent public schools run by their own boards, state law says that the local board that authorizes them gets to include them under its umbrella for state funding:
For the purpose of funding, a Type 1, Type 3, Type 3B not acting as its own local education agency, and Type 4 charter school shall be considered an approved public school of the local school board entering into the charter agreement.
Instead of urging board members to approve a formula, which has carried funding weights for students learning English, special education and gifted students, they urged the board to empower Lewis to make that decision.
Encore Academy’s Founder, Terri Smith, came in support of the funding formula and allowing Lewis to make the decision.
“It takes far more resources to meet the needs of my ELL [English language learner] kids than it does my gifted kids,” Smith said. “This is equitable and this is right.”
Attorney James Brown, who represents Lusher and Lake Forest charter schools, spoke on behalf of the two schools. He was essentially the only dissenting speaker.
“This thing has been a freight train running down the track where nobody wants to take ownership of it,” Brown said.
In closing he said he hoped the board would postpone and avoid “what is going to be lengthy, divisive, expensive, federal court litigation.”
Most others echoed Smith, saying more resources should be given to the students who are most expensive to educate, often those with special needs that require full-time para-educators by their sides and other services.
Parents and teachers even began designating their children as “expensive” and “cheap” to educate. Many families had students in both categories.
The School Board’s attorney Edward Morris had a reminder: “Just a reminder to our public speakers: The board is not voting on the formula tonight. “
But that didn’t matter much.
The principal of Crocker College Prep spoke of a student who arrived at the school nonverbal and unable to walk or feed herself. When she took her first step, it was priceless, she said, but then reminded herself: “It wasn’t priceless. It cost over $65,000 for that first step.”
Several speakers spoke to a societal responsibility to educate all of the city’s children.
The board took heed.
Member Nolan Marshall Jr. had short remarks before the board voted.
“This process has been very difficult in that we as a board were excluded,” he said.
“I believe we all agree that differentiated funding is the right thing to do,” he said. It’s the route we take to get there where we differ, he said.
The board voted unanimously to authorize Lewis to allocate funding appropriately based on student needs.
Hammonds helped break down the vote after the meeting.
“It just authorized the superintendent to fund all of the public schools in Orleans Parish in an equitable fashion,” Hammonds said.
Had the board voted against the resolution, the law still would have gone into effect July 1 he said.
“I think this was mainly an affirmation that he [Lewis] had the authority to move forward with the blessing of the board,” Hammonds said.
Asked after the meeting if he planned to approve the working group’s formula, Lewis didn’t give a hard answer, but alluded to his ‘yes’ vote as a member of the 12-person group that devised the formula.
“Clearly, as I stated tonight, I strongly support the formula,” Lewis said. “And when I voted, I voted yes.”