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Einstein could lose two charter schools over its busing dispute with the school district

A long-simmering dispute over busing for Einstein Charter School’s two elementary schools in eastern New Orleans is coming to a boil with the superintendent’s decision to start the process of revoking their charters.

The decision could be made by May, and the schools could be under new management by next school year. The district could turn those schools over to a new charter operator or allow a charter operator to open up new schools in their place.

“If Einstein chooses to comply with the district’s rules, then the Superintendent may … decide to not revoke the charters,” spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email.

The move could affect about 1,000 students enrolled at Einstein Charter School Village de l’Est and Einstein Charter Sherwood Forest.

The school district and the charter organization have sparred over transportation requirements since last fall, when the district told Einstein it wasn’t following the rules on providing free transportation to elementary students.

Einstein has argued it does provide free transportation because it gives students public-transit passes if they ask for them.

The matter is now in court.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. plans to start the charter revocation process, according to a district report to be presented at a board committee meeting Tuesday.

If Lewis does recommend pulling the charters, Ellis said, that would likely happen at the board’s May meeting. It would be effective July 1.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run. They generally get permission to run a school for several years at a time, and they must meet certain standards in order to get their charter renewed.

It’s unusual, if not unheard of, for a charter school in New Orleans to lose its charter before its contract is up.

The district renewed Einstein’s charters in 2016, contingent upon one thing: providing transportation for its youngest students.

But it’s unclear if that means they must ride school buses. Most other charter schools in the city provide busing. But the exact mode of transportation is not included in Einstein’s operating agreement, which requires “free and adequate transportation,” nor is it in the state policy cited by the district.

At a town hall meeting in August, a parent told district officials the school wasn’t providing busing.

Soon after, the school district told the charter network to hire a transportation company, tell families about it and provide an invoice to the district by mid-December. In response, Einstein’s board authorized CEO Shawn Toranto to take legal action.

The district sued the school in late November.

School district policy allows Lewis to recommend that a school’s charter be pulled if it isn’t meeting the district’s standards. His recommendation would stand unless five of the seven board members vote against it.

School district policy requires Lewis to make such recommendations by December unless it’s an emergency — if the health, safety, or welfare of students is threatened. Asked about this requirement, Ellis said the decision to proceed with an immediate revocation complies with the policy.

District policy calls for the superintendent to conduct pre-revocation meetings, one of which must be a public hearing at the school. The school can address the Orleans Parish School Board and challenge the district’s findings.

“The district will continue to work in good faith with Einstein’s leadership to resolve this issue in a transparent manner, ensuring fairness for both the school and for all families,” Ellis wrote in an email.

She said nothing will change this school year, and “no additional action is required at this time for parents or guardians.”

The deadline to choose another school through the main round of OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system, was at the end of February. Seats at some schools are available during a second application round. That deadline is May 25, Ellis said.

Einstein’s CEO and board chair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story was updated to include the school district’s policy on charter revocations and the fact that students can apply for another school after the main round of OneApp. (March 19, 2018)

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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.