The Orleans Parish School Board cast itself as a rescue squad in taking charge of Cypress Academy after the charter school announced, three days before summer vacation, that it would not be reopening in the fall.

Some parents and education community leaders are wondering if the school board’s hands-off approach wasn’t the problem from which Cypress needed to be rescued.

For its part, the school board sees the charter school’s administration as the heart of the problem.

In taking charge of the school and agreeing to run it directly for two years OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. invoked the district’s role and responsibility as “authorizer” of all public schools in the city, all but two of which are chartered.

“Cypress is interesting because it was unforeseen by OPSB,” said Nahliah Webber, the executive director of the independent Orleans Public Education Network. “And that is part of the problem.”

Asked whether the district should have communicated with parents earlier and more openly,  Cypress parent Jeremy Dewberry said yes.

“There ought to be some type of requirement that if these types of situations are developing that parents need to be made aware well in advance,” he said. “And I think that’s just transparency.”

Jay Altman, the CEO of FirstLine Schools charter group, said it is important for an authorizer to know what’s going on with its charters.

“Part of that role is understanding these significant issues for each of the schools,” Altman said. “And then when those issues become existentially threatening, engaging in an conversation about the options.”

It appears Cypress discussed its issues with the district, including a staffing model only sustainable with outside funds. But after the charter announced its decision to close, the district demanded surrender of the Cypress charter and the board complied.

Failure to revamp staffing doomed school

Cypress’s plan, to cater to students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities, won the Orleans Parish School Board’s approval for a charter contract and the school opened in  2015.

Hints that the school was in trouble date back at least to this past spring. The charter board discussed next year’s finances at public board meetings, but board members and school staffers were often the only people in the room.

The school deemed its staffing model financially unsustainable given current levels of state support, but Director Bob Berk would later tell families he didn’t want to change the staffing model.

Emails show district officials reviewed Cypress’s staffing model and budget in early April.

Later, they discussed Berk’s plan to send students to another charter school.

When parents found out they said they felt blindsided.

Cypress worked out a plan with another charter group that would accept Cypress students automatically. A district administrator liked the idea, but parents didn’t.

They organized quickly, holding meetings and sending a letter to Lewis and district leadership. The school’s heavy special-education enrollment made it especially important for the district to save Cypress, they argued. Parents and board members pleaded with the district to fill next school year’s budget gap, but the district said it couldn’t move funds to a charter.

Two days later, the district told rattled Cypress parents it would avert the threatened shutdown by taking over. District management would be a “safe harbor” for the small charter school, a district administrator said.

The takeover, while a limited victory for parents, appears to be a step back for a district that has made a concerted effort to shed itself of direct-run schools.

Not only has the district taken over Cypress but it has agreed to run the school for two years. That’s enough time to provide stability, Superintendent Lewis told parents in a letter.

However, groups could apply next spring to re-charter the school, Lewis said.

Charter autonomy behind hands-off approach

Though the district was aware of Cypress’ deepening concerns about its financial viability in the coming year, OPSB’s failure to respond pre-emptively was portrayed by some as a result of deference to the cherished autonomy that comes with charter status.

Autonomy is a key component of the charter model, allowing charter schools to make hiring, budget and curriculum decisions without district oversight. (In recent years the district has re-taken control of enrollment and expulsion.) The district would have been overstepping its traditional role if it had raised an alarm and had alerted parents to the pending crisis.

Dewberry said he spoke with board members at other charters who told him they weren’t surprised the Cypress board didn’t share its financial worries. They likely feared parents would flee, he said.

“They definitely were not going to tell us that information,” Dewberry said. “Which I think is a problem with the system.”

Moving forward, parents will be hyper-vigilant, he said.

“Once the board is sunk who cares if the parents mad at the board,” Dewberry said. “There’s no consequence in it.”

Webber said she hopes the district will examine its charter contracts to find concrete ways to hold schools accountable. Autonomy is often a “blanket excuse” within the charter system, Webber said.

Shutdown announcement unacceptably late

Caroline Roemer, who heads the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said the school put families in a tough position and the district had to step in.

“This is a scenario, that really as much as anything is about timing and the fact that this charter board made an announcement so unacceptably late in the year,” Roemer said.

She also said this is an opportunity to evaluate policy.

“I do think we have to examine the relationship between charter school and authorizer,” Roemer said. “What policies are they going to put in place that maybe could have been earlier detectors?”

Getting autonomy right will be especially important for the district as it prepares to double in size this summer by resuming oversight of all the city schools that were seized by the Recovery School District in the years just before and after Hurricane Katrina. Only recently did the Orleans Parish school district’s “portfolio” of charters expand beyond start-ups and historically high-performing schools. With unification, OPSB will gain control of a new class of takeover and turnaround schools.

Orleans Parish school district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said the district doesn’t have a policy on charter surrender. However, for the last couple years, she said, OPSB has informally asked groups to notify them much earlier of plans for the coming year.

For the 2017-18 school year, “we made the request for notification in early November, asking schools to make this decision by December,” she wrote in an email last week.

Ellis said the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has a policy that requires charters under its authority to notify BESE by Dec. 31 of a school year. “OPSB is intending to bring forward similar policy.”

OPSB member sees no precedent in takeover

Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban doesn’t think the takeover will establish a precedent for the district to take over additional schools in Cypress’s position.

“I hope that this sets precedent for other charter school boards to make better decisions in how they operate their schools,” he said.

Kleban said Cypress’ board and leadership could have avoided closure.

“The way to have stabilized the school financially was to make a smarter staffing situation,” Kleban said. “There was no financial emergency here. This was entirely created by the board and staff.”

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...