Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. speaks to parents and faculty at McDonogh 35 Senior High School. McDonogh 35's principal is one of five starting a new charter network that wants to take over the district's five remaining traditional schools. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Principals at the last five schools operated by the local school district in New Orleans have asked to convert them to independent charters, all run by an organization created last week.

The plan has the implicit support of Orleans schools superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. In the past two weeks, Lewis has spoken to parents to advocate converting the schools to charters. At times he has appeared to speak in favor of the new charter network itself.

Applications have been filed to charter the five remaining traditional public schools in New OrleansA new charter group called the ExCEED Network wants to take over these five schools: Benjamin Franklin Mathematics and Science School Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology Mahalia Jackson Elementary School Eleanor McMain Secondary School McDonogh 35 Senior High School

Last month, the Orleans Parish School Board asked for applications from groups that want to take over the five schools or create a new charter school. Lewis will decide, with the approval of the board, which nonprofit organization will be awarded the charters for these schools.

And although the district says it wants to see evidence that teachers and parents support the conversion to a charter, they will not be given an opportunity to vote on the matter.

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ neighborhood-based schools gradually have been replaced by charters that are open to any child in the city.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but they’re run by private, nonprofit groups. They’re overseen by boards that must meet and make decisions in public, but the board members are not elected.

Day-to-day decisions, such as school calendars and curriculum, are left to the charter schools. They must meet certain benchmarks, including academic performance, in order to keep their charters.

If the five schools are converted to charters, New Orleans will be the first city in the nation with no traditional public schools run by an elected board.

The principals’ charter group is called the ExCEED Network. That’s how the school district has been referring to the five direct-run schools for a few months, before this group was created.

“ExCEED Network came from the principals; we are the ExCEED Network.”—John Green, principal at McDonogh 35

Wednesday night, Lewis spoke to parents gathered in the gymnasium of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology. He introduced them to the “ExCEED team.”

He explained that he wasn’t referring to the nonprofit that wants to run the schools next year. These individuals are district staffers who work with the five direct-run schools.

Parents expressed confusion. Again and again, they asked him to clarify who was on the board of this new charter group and who will run it.

Lewis told them he didn’t know much about ExCEED because the principals are organizing it. He said Coleman Ridley Jr., head of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, is listed as president of the nonprofit, according to the Secretary of State. Ridley registered the ExCEED nonprofit last week.

Ridley served on the board of Crescent City Schools until he resigned Wednesday.

“I’m going to try to make the best of a situation that I know that my one voice can’t change.”—Bethune parent Catherine Robin

Parents asked how many nonprofits have applied to take over Bethune. Lewis and Taina Knox, the district’s director of new schools, said they didn’t know.

But earlier Wednesday, the district gave The Lens the applications received so far. ExCEED is the only organization that has applied to take over the five schools. The deadline to submit applications is noon Friday.

Ridley is listed as a proposed board member on ExCEED’s applications. Two others are listed:

  • Yvette Alexis, vice chair for Academic Affairs at Delgado Community College
  • Adrian Mendez, a top executive at a private-equity firm who formerly worked with New Schools for New Orleans and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools

None of them has responded to interview requests.

The applications say the current principals of the schools will run them under ExCEED:

  • Charlotte Matthew at Benjamin Franklin Mathematics and Science School, often called Baby Ben
  • Mary Haynes-Smith at Bethune
  • Litouri Smith at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School
  • Lakeysha London at Eleanor McMain Secondary School
  • John Green at McDonogh 35 Senior High School

The parent meetings, organized by the principals in cooperation with the district, come a month after Lewis announced the principals had expressed interest in taking over the schools and the district requested applications for its annual charter review process.

District won’t require vote of parents or staff

The school district’s application packet, online since December, says applicants may be required to demonstrate that parents and staff support the takeover of the school. The packet describes in detail how secret balloting would be handled and when: between Friday and Feb. 3.

But the school district doesn’t have to require a vote. Knox said the district decided against the requirement in November.

However, Lewis told The Lens on Monday that he had left it up to each principal — the ones who are forming the ExCEED charter network — to decide whether to hold a secret vote.

Asked why the application packet described the voting process, district officials said those references were a mistake. The district has required votes in the past, but that policy hasn’t been consistent, said Adam Hawf, chief of staff for the school district. That information wasn’t removed when the documents were updated.

“While materials referencing the process remained on our website, OPSB has since updated all materials to clarify that a parent/staff vote will not be administered,” the district said Thursday in a written statement. People who registered with the online application system have been notified that there won’t be any votes.

“We have communicated consistently over time that we would not mandate a staff or parent vote.”—Taina Knox, Orleans Parish School Board

Although the documents apparently have been inaccurate for a month, Knox said “we have communicated consistently over time that we would not mandate a staff or parent vote.”

However, the district does want applicants to provide evidence that the school community supports the conversion.

Included in the ExCEED applications are more than 200 letters expressing support from parents and guardians of students at McDonogh 35, printed on school letterhead. A petition with signatures from parents and teachers at Mahalia Jackson Elementary also express support.

After the meeting at McDonogh 35 on Monday night, Green, the principal, pointed to a stack of letters and said he didn’t think faculty would want to cast secret ballots because that wouldn’t be a public display of support. He said people could think the results of a secret vote could be manipulated.

That’s not how it was handled when Lusher became a charter school in 2005. CEO Kathy Riedlinger said she wasn’t involved at all in the secret voting by teachers and parents. Both groups voted in favor of converting to a charter school.

Instead, before parents knew whether any other group wanted to take over the school, their kids were coming home with fill-in-the-blank letters expressing support for ExCEED. “I learned ________ has applied for a new charter with the ExCEED Network. I am writing this application in support of the application and its leadership.”

“I think we have 78 staff members. And I did not get one letter of opposition to moving forward.”—Bethune Principal Mary Haynes-Smith

Wednesday night, some parents expressed support for Bethune Principal Mary Haynes-Smith, who told them she didn’t at first believe they should charter, but she now believes the time is right.

“I think we have 78 staff members,” she said. “And I did not get one letter of opposition to moving forward.”

She said about 75 percent of students have returned the fill-in-the-blank support letters. “No one sent me a letter saying no,” Haynes-Smith said.

But after the meeting one mother told The Lens said she had marked up her letter to say she opposed the move and returned it to the school.

Some parents offered support during the meeting. “I think the principal would not make a bad decision for our children,” one said. “So we need to be open to change.”

After the meeting, parent Catherine Robin asked why the district isn’t requiring parents to vote.

Robin said she did not sign the support letter because she wanted to hear from the superintendent and principal first.

“I’m going to try to make the best of a situation that I know that my one voice can’t change,” she said.

She said she’ll apply to be on ExCEED’s board. “I want to be that person to bring back information and be the voice of the parents,” she said.

Making the pitch for charters

District officials say ExCEED is a creation of the principals at the five schools. Green, principal at McDonogh 35, said, “ExCEED Network came from the principals; we are the ExCEED Network.”

Its applications don’t say who would be CEO. Hawf said he doesn’t know of any district employee who is involved with the ExCEED charter network.

Wednesday night, Lewis introduced Nicolette London as a member of the district’s ExCEED team.

“As superintendent, I can’t tell you that Ms. London will be the leader,” he said pointing to her. But, he said, the principals will work with the ExCEED board to decide who will head the organization.

That decision is generally made by the board of a charter network. The CEO, in turn, would decide whom to hire as principals.

The Lens has attended two of the parent meetings and watched a video of another.

At the meetings, school principals have given presentations about ExCEED and charters in general. Lewis has explained the benefits of becoming a charter and how the process works. He has told parents no students will lose their seats, and the schools will not become selective-admission.

“Shouldn’t you be guaranteed the same funding” as the other charters?—Henderson Lewis Jr., superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board

At times Lewis has appeared to support ExCEED, whose application he must approve. “What we’re doing,” he said at a meeting at Baby Ben, “is modeling what you’re doing as a school today.”

Lewis said when he reviews the charter applications, he will look to see how much things would stay the same. “I should be able to read the application and see those same programs there.”

He emphasized that the charter would not change anything. But it’s possible that a charter organization could implement its own ideas; a bedrock of the charter movement is giving parents the ability to choose from a variety of programs.

Lewis told parents at Baby Ben that he has informed some district employees they may be asked to move to the charter organization. Matthew, the Ben Franklin Elementary principal, has told parents in a letter that the new organization would be made up of current district staff.

A handout distributed to Ben Franklin teachers said the ExCEED network would take part in the state teachers’ pension plan. It also said a conversion to ExCEED would allow administrators to explore offering more competitive salaries.

At the meeting at McDonogh 35, Lewis told employees he would seriously consider charter applications only if they allowed employees to remain in the state pension plan. Many charter organizations instead offer 403(b) plans, which cost less and offer different benefits.

As part of his pitch, Lewis has told parents that as a charter school, they will get 98 percent of funding dedicated to their students. Now, these schools get about 82 percent; the rest goes to the central office.

The other 75 or so schools in the city — all charters — get 98 percent of that funding, he told them last week. “Shouldn’t you be guaranteed the same funding?” he asked parents at Baby Ben. “I think the answer is yes.”

“I think the deal has already been made, they’re going charter. … The most we can do now is make sure it’s done right.”—Bethune parent Kimberly Reese

What he hasn’t said is that charters have to pay for administration and other services with the additional money. Direct-run schools generally share services, such as busing, with other district schools; those services are funded by the 18 percent that goes to the central office.

A recent study by Tulane University’s Educational Research Alliance concluded that charters spend more on administration, likely due to the loss in economies of scale.

Wednesday night, Lewis told parents that Bethune already pays for its own busing. Hawf said Lewis had misspoken.

Bethune parent Kimberly Reese said after the meeting she wants more information on who will be running the charter. She did not sign the support letter.

“I think the deal has already been made, they’re going charter,” Reese said. “The most we can do now is make sure it’s done right.”

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...