The Orleans Parish School Board has sued Einstein Charter Schools, arguing the charter group is violating district policy by refusing to provide busing for elementary students.
Einstein argues it does provide free transportation by giving them tokens to ride city buses to and from school.
The two sides agreed in October to mediate the disagreement, but Einstein has said it can’t meet until January, according to OPSB’s lawsuit.
The school district can’t wait that long, “while Einstein’s students continue to be deprived of the transportation services to which they are entitled,” OPSB attorney Sharonda Williams wrote in the complaint.
Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto said in a statement Thursday afternoon she is “extremely disappointed” in the district’s decision to file a lawsuit.
The school district, she said, refuses to specify “exactly what it believes Einstein is to provide in the way of transportation to comply with OPSB’s interpretation of the law and the operating agreement.”
The school district wants a judge to order Einstein to provide free transportation as required by state education policy and to declare that the charter group has breached its contract.
The fight illustrates a tension between two values in education reform: choice and autonomy.
The charter movement is built on allowing charter schools the freedom to make decisions on what they teach, how they run their schools and how they spend their money. They get public money as long as they meet certain benchmarks.
Another key tenet of education reform is giving parents the ability to choose any school they want. Some organizations say lack of transportation limits options for families who can’t take their children back and forth to school.
School district learned about lack of busing in August
School district leaders learned in August that Einstein does not bus its youngest students to and from three of its four schools: Einstein Charter School Village de l’Est, Einstein Charter Sherwood Forest and Einstein Middle School.
The charter contracts and district policy require free transportation for students in sixth grade and younger who live more than a mile from school. Both refer to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Bulletin 119.
Einstein argues it meets the requirements of that policy by providing tokens to students and to their guardians if they would like to accompany them.
In a Nov. 21 letter, lawyer Mark Beebe asked the school district to “identify the mode of transportation that is required for a school to meet the requirements.”
The state policy cited by the school district doesn’t appear to say what type of vehicle, other than a school bus, can be used to transport children. It largely deals with yellow school buses and bus drivers, outlining the definition of a school bus, training for bus drivers and operating procedures.
Some parts of the policy appear to undermine Einstein’s argument. For instance, one portion says no one other than students, school officials and others authorized by a “transportation supervisor” can board a bus.
Transportation was a condition of Einstein’s charter renewals last year.
When the two sides were negotiating those charter agreements, Einstein said it planned to rely on public buses to fulfil the transportation requirement, the lawsuit says.
The school district said that wasn’t good enough. Einstein agreed to follow the transportation policy now at the center of their disagreement.
The school district issued a formal warning in September and ordered Einstein to start busing this week. That hasn’t happened.
Einstein’s CEO and its lawyer did not immediately return requests for comment.
At an October meeting of an Orleans Parish School Board committee, district staff said the two sides would mediate the issue.
Board member Ben Kleban said the school district should “take this as far as we need to take it to make sure that Einstein honors the nature of our agreement and delivers the services that these kids deserve.”
Several members of the public also spoke in favor of providing busing. Kleban thanked them.
“It’s my understanding that there are parents going to Einstein schools that have been bullied and threatened to sign petitions to give up their right,” he said. “The level of behavior … is egregious.”
Einstein routinely generates a surplus, he said. “That is the money they should have spent on buses.”
Einstein required to bus when it took over failing charter school
Einstein’s bus token policy would have been fine when it first opened in 2006. But in 2015, the Orleans Parish School Board started to require its open-enrollment charters, like Einstein, to provide transportation to its youngest students.
Charters overseen by the Recovery School District already were required to do so. Selective-admission schools overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board are not required to provide transportation.
In 2013, Einstein took over a failing Recovery School District charter, Intercultural Charter School. As part of the takeover, Einstein was given a grant to provide transportation to Intercultural students who stayed after the takeover.
Nikisha Bartholomew’s three children made the switch. She said her children were bused for the first two years after the takeover.
“I was under the impression it would stay that way, and it didn’t,” she said. “In the spring of 2015, they sent a letter home saying, ‘We’re not doing buses anymore.’”
Instead, she was offered tokens for public transit.
Bartholomew said she was offered extra tokens so she could ride with her young children. But her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to ride the bus four times a day to escort them to and from school.
This story was updated after publication to include comments from Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto and to note that selective-admission schools don’t have to provide transportation. (Nov. 30, 2017)