Lawyers for Einstein Charter Schools want to depose the Orleans Parish schools superintendent to learn what he intended when he negotiated operating agreements that required Einstein to provide transportation for its students.
But Civil District Court Judge Rachael Johnson sided with the Orleans Parish School Board in a hearing Monday morning, saying Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. does not have to testify — at least for now.
Unlike most schools in the city, Einstein doesn’t bus its students. Instead, it provides public transit vouchers. If students are in second grade or younger, the school will provide a voucher for the parent to ride along.
The school district decides whether charter schools under its oversight are meeting requirements that allow them to remain open and use taxpayer dollars. It has said public transit vouchers don’t meet its requirements for free transportation for the district’s youngest students.
Some parents have voiced concerns over the charter’s decision to rely on public transportation.
Einstein’s attorneys argued in the hearing that they need to hear from Lewis, under oath, to find out what he meant when he gave a presentation to the school board saying free transportation would be a condition of the board’s approval of contracts for Einstein’s four schools.
OPSB attorney Sharonda Williams argued Lewis can’t be forced to discuss that. “We believe that his thought process is deliberative,” she said.
Johnson didn’t appear to disagree with Einstein’s lawyers, but she suggested they had raised the issue too early.
“There may be some information you need from him,” Johnson said in siding with the school board. “But you don’t know that.”
The school district has offered affidavits from two other employees, saying they were closer to the contract discussions than Lewis. But Einstein’s lawyers say that’s not good enough.
“If they don’t provide [Lewis] as a witness, they don’t get to introduce” his negotiations with the charter group in a trial, said Mark Beebe, one of Einstein’s lawyers, in the hearing.
“They’ve turned the deliberative process on its head because they want subordinates to answer,” Beebe said.
The short hearing offered some insight into how the case is progressing.
Einstein contends that public transit vouchers meet the school district’s transportation requirement. And although the school district says they don’t, Einstein argues that the district hasn’t said what exactly would meet the requirement.
“We know it’s RTA plus something. They won’t tell us,” Beebe said. He said paying for parents to escort young students is “providing the safety net that’s required.”
When Einstein negotiated its operating agreements last year, the two sides went back and forth over transportation requirements. An early version of an “assurances” document said Einstein would provide vouchers. But the final version didn’t say anything about vouchers or buses.
Beebe said the district has contradicted itself by pointing to that document despite contract language that says nothing else can be considered.
Beebe also argued Einstein should be treated like selective admissions schools, like Lusher Charter School, that do not have to provide yellow buses.
In December, Johnson ruled a full evidentiary hearing would be required on the district’s request for an injunction to force Einstein to stop using public transit vouchers. The two sides have not yet set a date for that hearing.
The school district told Einstein that it had to provide proof that it had hired a busing company by the middle of December. That didn’t happen.
“I believe we need to speed it along,” Johnson said.