Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. hasn’t backed off his proposal to close Mahalia Jackson Elementary School.
But he said Thursday that the school district will seek proposals from outside groups to take over the facility, which includes the school, a clinic, a public library and social service organizations.
The school board has not voted on his recommendation to close the school. Thursday, Lewis said he’d hate to close it without a viable proposal in place.
“We’ll have to see if there’s a proposal to even keep intact some components of what we currently have on the site as far as those elementary school grades,” Lewis said at the board committee meeting.
Thursday’s update on Mahalia Jackson comes after months of uncertainty for the school community.
First, families were told it could become a charter school. Then, after the prospective charter group received a poor review, Lewis told parents he wanted to close the school at the end of next year because it didn’t have enough students.
But the board deferred a decision when parents showed up to protest.
Since then, Lewis has held a couple of meetings with families, telling them he wanted to return the school to its original focus as a community center.
He recently reassigned the school’s founding principal, Lakeysha London, to the school for the 2017-18 school year.
Mahalia Jackson closed before Hurricane Katrina and reopened in 2010, sharing the site with an early childhood education center, a library branch and a health clinic. It was initially managed by a third party but the school board eventually took that on.
Thursday, district staff said they will soon request proposals for what to do with the building. They are looking for proposals that include early childhood programming, preserve the facility as a community asset, are financially sustainable, and have evidence of community support.
School district administrators emphasized the need to continue early-childhood education — which Lewis defined as ages 3 to 8 — at the site in Central City.
The school will serve kindergarten through sixth grade this fall in what appears to be its final year.
The district plans to publish its request for proposals by July 12. A proposal review committee would make a recommendation by mid-August, which Lewis would bring to the board.
“All in all, we hope we can have the agreement between the leadership partner and the board” by December, Deputy Chief of Administration and Diversity Armand Devezin said.*
That would prepare them to hand over operations next summer.
Mahalia Jackson came up in another committee meeting — because it needs money due to under-enrollment.
The budget committee approved a $525,883 transfer from the district’s general fund to the school to fund teacher salaries. The district projects a deficit of roughly $500,000 at Mahalia Jackson for the next school year, based on a projected enrollment of 220 students.
The district did limit this fall’s incoming class to siblings of current students. Fewer than five were admitted.
Chief Operations Officer Eric Seling said the financial gap is obvious in the new way the district is handling its budget, which breaks out each school.
Next year, the district will send 98 percent of per-pupil funding to its direct-run schools, the same amount state law requires to be passed to charter schools. The budget includes a “chargeback” breakdown to reflect the services provided to each direct-run school by the central office.
Under the old way of budgeting, the district’s direct-run schools were grouped together, sharing resources and making it harder to tell which ones took a larger share of expenses for services such as special education or transportation. Seling said other direct-run schools subsidized Mahalia Jackson.
When The Lens analyzed transportation budgets in 2013, the district spent $1,603 per student at Mahalia Jackson, well above the district average of $1,106.
*Correction: This story originally misspelled Armand Devezin’s name. (June 16, 2017)