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Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Step Up organizer Maria Harmon speaks at a rally Tuesday morning in front of Einstein Charter Schools, which provides public transit tokens instead of yellow bus service to students. The group supports the Orleans Parish School Board effort to force Einstein to provide busing.

A woman holding a sign along Michoud Boulevard on Tuesday morning raised a question that would worry many parents of school-age children: “Why do I have to cross a highway to get to school?”

She was part of a group of about 20 parents, children and community members protesting Einstein Charter Schools’ decision to rely on public transit, not yellow school buses, to get kids to and from school.

The Orleans Parish School Board has sued Einstein, saying public transit doesn’t meet the requirements of Einstein’s charter contracts.

Three of Einstein’s four schools are located at its campus on Michoud Boulevard, a four-lane road with a wide neutral ground. One of the city’s public buses meanders through eastern New Orleans and pulls up directly across from the school.

Another bus, which starts in Broadmoor, stops at the intersection of Michoud and Chef Menteur Highway. Einstein students who get off there must cross Chef Menteur, a four-lane U.S. highway, to walk the three-quarters of a mile to school.

Or they can stay on the bus another 12 minutes as it makes a loop so they don’t have to cross the highway before walking the rest of the way.

A state law passed in 2014 prohibits school buses from dropping students off in a place that would require them to cross a highway.

Einstein provides free public transit vouchers to students who request them. If a student is in second grade or below, the school provides vouchers for a parent or guardian to ride along, too.*

Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto said the bus stops are in front of  its schools or less than a quarter-mile away. “More importantly, however, there has never been any safety related incident relating from the use of RTA transportation that has been brought to Einstein’s attention,” she said in a written statement.

That arrangement doesn’t satisfy Step Up Louisiana, a social justice advocacy group that organized Tuesday’s protest.

Two of Michelle Rivera’s four children attend Einstein’s Village d’lest campus. She pays $90 a week for a private van service to transport them.

When her two youngest children are old enough, she wants them all to attend the same school. “It’s going to be too expensive,” she said.

That’s the reason Einstein doesn’t pay a bus company. According to a petition passed out to parents in the fall and an affidavit submitted by an administrator, the school would be forced to cut academic services if it is forced to pay for busing.

The charter group saves $500,000 a year by relying on public transit, which it uses for special-education and teaching English to non-native speakers, according to the administrator.

But Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban said at a public meeting in November the school routinely generates a surplus. The school had about $4 million in cash and cash equivalents last summer, according to its most recent audit.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Three-year-old Sofia Magdalena stands outside Einstein Charter Schools with her mother at a protest in favor of providing yellow bus service. Her brother attends one of Einstein’s elementary schools.

Ernest Charles, who lives in the area, has spoken at school board meetings in support of yellow bus service. “It’s a doggone shame that these parents have to pay to get their children to school,” he said Tuesday morning.

As a charter school, Einstein is publicly funded but privately run. Its four schools must meet certain academic, operational and financial benchmarks to stay open.

The Orleans Parish School Board requires open-enrollment schools, like Einstein, to provide “free transportation by a vehicle approved for student transportation.” It cites a state policy on student transportation that doesn’t actually specify what types of vehicles are appropriate.

Most schools in the city provide busing, although some selective-admissions schools, such as Lusher Charter School, don’t have to.

In September, the school district sent Einstein a notice of non-compliance and required it to hire a transportation company.

In response, Einstein’s board authorized its CEO to take legal action. The two sides agreed to mediate, but the school board sued because Einstein wouldn’t sit down to talk quickly enough.

In a December court hearing, an attorney for the school board said Einstein had been told public transit isn’t acceptable. An attorney for Einstein said the district hasn’t said what is acceptable.

The judge told the two to keep working and set a hearing for later this month.

Back on Michoud Boulevard on Tuesday, blue Einstein banners hung from the light posts in the small neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city.

“When the children get off the bus in the morning, there are no school personnel that meet them,” said Cristi Rosales-Fajardo, who worked at Einstein for a few years as a parent liaison and sends her kids there.

Toranto said there’s no requirement that school employees accompany children from a bus stop.

Davida Finger, the head of Loyola University’s law clinic, was there with a few law students. The law clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of Step Up and five other organizations that support the district’s lawsuit.

“We’re here,” she said, “because we support your fight for free and appropriate transportation.”

*Correction: This story originally said parents of children in fifth grade and under could get free vouchers to accompany their children. That’s available to children in second grade and under, according to Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto. (Jan. 9, 2017)

This story was updated to include comments from Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto. (Jan. 9, 2017)

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About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.