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Evaluators knock ExCEED’s application to take over New Orleans’ last five traditional schools

A team of independent evaluators isn’t convinced a charter organization led by current and former Orleans Parish School Board administrators and principals can convert the district’s five remaining traditional schools into successful charters.

Thibodeaux and Walden Consulting concluded the ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization doesn’t meet standards in each of the critical areas they evaluated: academic, organizational, financial and “evidence of capacity.”

That’s the third lowest of four possible ratings.

“The evaluation team does not feel confident in recommending that the application be approved for all five schools,” they wrote.

It’s a serious setback for the nascent charter group, led by school district staff and the principals of the three elementary and two high schools. In pitching their plan, the principals have told parents that their goal is to continue the methods currently in use at the schools.

One other charter organization, InspireNOLA, has been approved to run one of those schools — either Eleanor McMain Secondary School or McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. first announced the principals were interested in converting to charters in December. In subsequent weeks, Lewis spoke at parent meetings appearing to support their effort. He will ultimately decide who, if anyone, gets to take over the schools.

Besides the principals, four current and one former school district staffers are involved in ExCEED’s effort to take over the schools. They all work or used to work in the office managing the five schools.

That raises potential conflicts because public employees aren’t allowed to work with an organization if they were involved in transactions with the organization. Public employees also must wait two years before doing the same work as a contractor for their former public agency.

The evaluation did not address any potential conflicts of interest.

Instead, evaluators questioned whether the principals’ shared vision was enough to carry a new charter network. They were also concerned about the group’s ability to execute the plans laid out in the application.

The group has promise, evaluators said, but “there were significant concerns about their capacity to manage five schools at this point.”

The team also had questions about ExCEED’s structure. Only four board members have been publicly named. Seven are required to sign a charter application.

In its response, the group emphasized its staff’s experience. In response to concerns about the board, it said it had conducted a “needs assessment” of the board and planned to “grow strategically.” It did not name additional board members.

The lack of detail in the nonprofit’s financial plan “raised concerns in terms of its sustainability,” evaluators wrote. ExCEED representatives seemed to have a “limited understanding of any specific contingency plans” to deal with low enrollment or unexpected expenses.

“Overall, ExCEED presented a financial plan that showed a need for further development if their goal is to sustainably manage operations for one or more schools,” they wrote.

The evaluators cited the group’s reliance on $900,000 in annual revenue from leasing parts of Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, saying ExCEED representatives couldn’t explain how they arrived at that figure.

“This is an example of a risky approach to financial management by including such a large revenue amount that is not guaranteed,” the evaluators wrote.

In its response, ExCEED explained that three other organizations use the building and would be willing to pay rent. So, they wrote, they included “below market rental income” in their revenue projections.

The group said its projected student enrollments would be reached easily “as our five schools enjoy a premier status with the New Orleans education landscape.” In the event of low enrollment, the group said it would first cut central office staff and non-teaching staff.

Evaluators wrote “the applicant could not address high-level financial questions to prove their financial acumen during the interview.” They also questioned how the group decided on the fee — 10 percent — that ExCEED would take to manage the schools.

The group said 10 percent is the least it needed successfully operate. Evaluators questioned if the organization had completed an analysis; ExCEED did not produce one.

ReNEW Schools’ fee is 7 percent; InspireNOLA’s is 9.5 percent.

A job posting for Executive Director of Finance and Operations was posted online Thursday. In application documents, that position had previously been assigned to Leroy Harris Jr. He serves in a similar role at the district.

Evaluators also worried about the capacity of the staff identified so far to integrate the five schools into one network. Further, they wrote, “decision-making was not clearly delineated between the board, CMO and individual schools.”

That has been an issue at other charter schools in the city; consultants have intervened to help.

ExCEED’s application described a network-wide focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) model. But evaluators said it lacked details such as how it would be applied at each site and staff professional development.

And the application described a dual-language program at Mahalia Jackson, but that section “omitted any mention of the STEAM curriculum and was not in alignment with the core focus” outlined by ExCEED, the evaluators wrote.

The school board will hold a public hearing Tuesday at McDonogh 35 Senior High School regarding all applications to take over existing schools.* Lewis will present his recommendations at the April 18 committee meetings.

This story was updated after publication to include information about the network’s STEAM model, and to add other charter organizations’ management fees. (April 7, 2017)

*Correction: This story originally said the meeting was about only McDonogh 35, but it’s about all the takeover applications and the meeting will be held at McDonogh 35. (April 7, 2017)

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