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Einstein Charter Schools drops opposition to busing students after school district threatens to pull charters

Two days after the Orleans Parish school district threatened to revoke charters for two of its elementaries, the board for Einstein Charter Schools decided to provide busing for its youngest students.

“We will be providing yellow bus transportation within two weeks,” Board member Durrell Laurent said.

The sudden reversal follows months of legal posturing in which the school district maintained that its contract requires the charter group to provide busing and Einstein argued it followed the rules by providing free public-transit vouchers.

On March 19, the school district stepped up the pressure, announcing it had begun the process to revoke charters for the network’s two elementary schools. The district also solicited applications from other operators to run the schools this fall.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told parents in a letter that Einstein had refused to follow laws ensuring all students can get to school.

“Einstein Charter School leadership must make a decision,” he wrote. “They must follow the contract signed with the district by providing the required transportation or face the consequences.”

In a hastily scheduled meeting two days later, Einstein’s board made that decision, authorizing two board members to resolve the issue with the school district.

Laurent said he was surprised to learn from a news story that Einstein could lose its charters. The board “was not aware that we were this far down the road.”

“We were told from the administration that the parents did not want yellow bus service,” he said. “After meeting with parents and talking with parents, I found out that’s not true.”

Einstein Board Chairman Chris Bowman III said the board didn’t want to lose the schools and create turmoil for students and teachers with a turnover this summer.

“This resolution came out of a very thoughtful discussion about the options and the idea of actually keeping the charter intact,” he said.

Einstein offered vouchers to parents of children in pre-kindergarten to second grades if they didn’t want their kids to ride the bus alone.

Three of Einstein’s four schools are located at its campus on Michoud Boulevard in eastern New Orleans.

One public bus stops across the four-lane road. Another stops three-quarters of a mile away at the intersection of Michoud and Chef Menteur Highway. Students who get off there must cross the busy U.S. highway, or they can stay on the bus longer as it makes a loop.

Parent complained about busing

Open-enrollment schools overseen by the school district — which encompasses most schools in New Orleans — are required to provide free transportation to students.

For students in sixth grade and under, the district requires schools to use vehicles approved by state policy, though that policy doesn’t say what types of vehicles are acceptable.

The school district learned Einstein relies on public transit after a parent complained at a public meeting in August.

The school district told the charter network to hire a transportation company and start busing the week after Thanksgiving. In response, Einstein’s board authorized CEO Shawn Toranto to take legal action against the school district.

The charter group estimated it saves about $523,000 a year by relying on public transit.

Last fall, Einstein asked parents to sign a petition telling the school district to “leave us alone.” It said Einstein would be forced to cut educational services to provide busing. “As a charter school parent,” it said, “we decide how our funds are spent to meet the needs of OUR children not OPSB!”

The district sued the school in late November, claiming Einstein was dragging its feet on mediation.

“This whole lawsuit deal, this is nonsense,” Laurent said. “And we should be providing yellow bus transportation to these students.”

The board’s decision didn’t spur an immediate reprieve from the school district.

“The Superintendent will consider the resolution, along with feedback received at pre-revocation meetings and any other information Einstein may put forward, as he deliberates whether to recommend revocation in April,” district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email Monday.

School district policy allows Lewis to recommend pulling a school’s charter if it doesn’t meet the district’s standards. His recommendation would stand unless five of the seven board members vote against it.

The policy requires Lewis to make such recommendations by December unless the health, safety, or welfare of students is threatened. Ellis told The Lens the decision to proceed with an immediate revocation complies with the policy.

The charter group’s website now has a “yellow bus questionnaire” for parents to request bus service.

The charter board plans to meet Tuesday night to discuss the ongoing lawsuit with the district.

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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.