The Orleans Parish school district has started to use a system of warning letters similar to those sent by the state Department of Education to hold charter schools accountable for breaking education law and their charter contracts.

Alice M. Harte Charter School received the first letter from the local school district for refusing to admit a student about a month before the end of last school year.

The charter group’s CEO said he wanted to save the seat for the next round of seat assignments for this fall. He noted that some siblings of Harte students had been denied a spot in that grade in the first round of OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system.

Dina Hasiotis, the Orleans district’s executive director of school performance, told the school board’s accountability committee in June that the new system will formalize communication with charter schools that violate district, state or federal rules.

“It’s a way for us to formally inform the schools of a violation and also help manage if additional steps need to be taken related to the concern,” Hasiotis said.

The Lens was denied an interview with Hasiotis. Spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said no district staff members are allowed to speak with the media.

Orleans Parish’s two-level warning system similar to the state’s

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. To retain their charters, they must meet academic, financial and organizational standards.

For years, the state has issued a “notice of concern” when a charter school under its oversight violates certain rules, such as the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The state sends a “notice of breach” for more severe incidents, like systematically disenfranchising special education students.

The state can revoke or refuse to renew a school’s charter if the violations are egregious or school officials don’t do what’s required to correct the problem.

Recovery School District schools — at one point, most of the schools in the city — are slated to return to Orleans Parish control next summer. Many RSD charter school leaders wanted the Orleans school district to make policy changes before agreeing to return.

The local school district has mimicked the state on other practices in years past, such as when it adopted a per-pupil funding formula similar to the RSD and required its charters to participate in OneApp.

Last summer, The Lens reported that Lusher Charter School’s board sidestepped state law requiring public bodies to deliberate in public during a teachers’ union drive. The district said it would look into the matter, but after meeting with Lusher’s lawyers and its CEO, it took no action.

The state, on the other hand, has cited schools after media reports of similar wrongdoing.

OPSB’s system isn’t completely new, but Hasiotis acknowledged some shortcomings in how the district has communicated with schools about violations.

“At OPSB, we just haven’t had it codified in terms of the notification system. So this is just another step to bring greater strength to our system,” she told the school board’s Accountability Committee.

There are two levels to the warnings, both titled “Notice of Non-Compliance.”

“The level one notifications are more about citing a less severe incident and reminding [schools] of the steps that need to be taken” to correct the problem, she said.

A level two notice, she said, will be issued for “a more severe issue around intent, frequency or … direct harm to students that is of greater concern.”

First notice issued this spring

The district used the new warning system for the first time in May, scolding Alice Harte Charter School for refusing to admit a student assigned there through the city’s centralized enrollment program.

The district’s warning came three days after Gabriella Fighetti, the state assistant superintendent of student enrollment, notified the school it had violated enrollment policy. Fighetti manages EnrollNOLA, the city’s centralized lottery system.

According to Fighetti, a student was assigned to Harte on April 26.

A Harte staffer first expressed reluctance about admitting the student due to some sort of issue with testing, according to Fighetti’s May 5 letter.

Then InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said in an email that the school would not accept a student with 25 days left in the school year, Fighettie wrote.

“As of May 4, you continued to state you that you would not accept the student,” Fighetti wrote. “This is a violation of EnrollNOLA policy and constitutes the denial of the student’s right to a public education.”

Orleans Parish followed with its own warning letter “based upon EnrollNOLA’s violation and the understanding of the circumstances at hand,” Ellis said in an email.

The Orleans school district informed InspireNOLA it would receive poor marks on its annual performance review if it did not immediately admit the student and demonstrate that school employees knew proper enrollment policy.

McKneely said Tuesday that the student was admitted before the deadline OPSB gave him.

The child had been assigned to Harte through EnrollNOLA’s round-robin method of assigning students throughout the school year, he said. Students are placed in schools one-by-one.

McKneely said he questioned the timing of the placement, which came two weeks after the first round of OneApp assignments for next fall. In a letter to the district, he said he thought the student had circumvented the enrollment process by transferring midyear after not getting a spot at Harte next fall.

Some families with a child at the school had been denied a seat for a sibling because there weren’t enough seats in the fall, he said.

“We had a lot of families trying to get seats,” he said.

He wanted EnrollNOLA to leave the seat open last school year and fill it for next year during the second round of OneApp, which started on April 17. Or the seat could have been filled with a sibling who was willing to transfer in before the end of the school year.

The goal was “to give options for parents who already have kids in our schools,” McKneely said.

He said his charter group may ask EnrollNOLA to start a system in which families who want to get a sibling into a school are alerted during the school year when a seat opens up. That’s not one of the reasons students are allowed to transfers midyear.

Ellis said the charter group had enrolled the student but has not “submitted written documentation regarding review of EnrollNOLA policies.”

McKneely disputed that and said the charter group has done everything it was required to.

New policies on the way

At this point, the warning system is a change in procedure, not policy.

“The administration will present new recommendations to the Unification Advisory Committee in August and OPSB policies will be likely be revised this fall,” Ellis said in an email.

At that June meeting, Hasiotis seemed to leave open the possibility that the warnings could be posted online, saying that has “come up through different conversations.”

That would be a step further than the state goes. Records from both agencies are public, but they must be requested under the Public Records Law.

She said she’s “trying to plan what that accountability transparency looks like under the unified system.”

This story was updated after publication to include information from McKneely’s letter to the Orleans Parish school district. (July 12, 2017)

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...