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Einstein Charter Schools hires busing company, looks to settle lawsuit with OPSB over transportation

Einstein Charter Schools’ board of directors hired a bus company Friday and authorized its board president to settle a six-month dispute over transportation that jeopardized two of its public-school charters.

The Orleans Parish school district has argued the four-school charter network must provide yellow bus service to its youngest students. For months, Einstein maintained it was sufficient to provide free vouchers for public transit.

At a meeting Friday, the board voted to hire Scholar’s 1st to provide yellow bus service to students who live more than a mile from school. Dan Davis, who was named interim CEO earlier this week, said Einstein will bus students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grades.

Hiring that company “gives us the opportunity to get transportation up and running fairly quickly,” attorney Lee Reid said.

“We believe we are very close,” Reid said of settling the lawsuit with the Orleans Parish School Board, which will have to approve the settlement. Its next meeting is April 19.

That’s when Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. would make a recommendation on whether to pull the charters.

Last fall, the Orleans Parish school district told Einstein to start busing kids the week after Thanksgiving. When that didn’t happen, the district sued the charter network.

The fight escalated three weeks ago, when the district threatened to revoke two of the group’s charters. That essentially gave Einstein a mid-April deadline to make a decision.

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

Two days later, Einstein’s board offered to provide “up to yellow bus transportation.”

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

Monday, Shawn Toranto resigned as Einstein’s CEO. In her resignation letter, she maintained the district is misinterpreting the school’s obligation.

“I believe that this misinterpretation of OPSB transportation requirements along with the misunderstanding of our fund balance will fail our students by significantly reducing the funding our educational program requires,” she wrote.

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

The school distributed a petition to parents last fall saying, “They want to force busing and take money out of our classrooms, remove our ELL [English language learners] teachers, increase our class size, cancel our after school activities, to do things THEIR way.”

Others, including Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban, have noted that the network has a sizable cash balance.

Davis told the board Friday, “At present our budget is spent, and we have to add busing, which is a major expense.”

Einstein has four charter schools in eastern New Orleans. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, and they must meet academic and financial goals to remain open.

Einstein’s board also approved a resolution Friday authorizing Davis “to terminate all efforts for replication of the school in Arkansas where practicable.”

Board members and Einstein staff had a long discussion about whether to move forward with the planned expansion. Staffers said the board had to make a decision immediately so employees could make plans to move.

“At the moment,” said board president Chris Bowman, “we have, in my mind, much bigger fish to fry.”

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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.