Charter schools in New Orleans have been adding parents and recent graduates to their governing boards as part of their return to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board.

The goal is to boost the voice of parents at independent charter schools. The private, nonprofit organizations that have taken over most of the schools in the city since Hurricane Katrina are run by boards that aren’t elected and select their own members.

“The one thing I’ve been hearing since this whole thing started is they want parents involved,” said state Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans).

Bishop served on the board at McDonogh City Park Academy alongside lawyers and financial experts. But he said he was the only one who had gone to school in Orleans Parish or had children in the district.

“What we were missing, I thought, was the voice of the children at the school and the voice of parents who had children at the school,” Bishop said.

Some charter leaders say they appreciate that goal, but they question whether the parish school board should dictate who’s on the boards of independent charter schools. They wonder whether parents can see past the immediate needs of their children to make decisions about the long-term viability of the school.

“I appreciate the goal of diversifying our boards and bringing in more voices,” said Elizabeth Ostberg, the principal and executive director of The NET, an alternative high school with two campuses in New Orleans.

“I personally think that having a parent of a current student is a conflict of interest in the same way you wouldn’t have an employee on the board,” she said.

The requirement came out of an Orleans Parish School Board meeting in September 2015. Board members discussed a new requirement that at least 60 percent of a charter’s board members live in the parish.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, was at the meeting. She said someone suggested that charter boards be required to have a parent, and the idea was immediately adopted.

The Orleans Parish School Board expanded the requirement the next year to allow a recent graduate or the parent of a recent grad.

Ostberg can live with that arrangement. The NET has a parent of an alumnus on its board. It may also add an alumnus, Ostberg said.

Some charters have had parents on their boards since they were founded years ago. Others have added parents in the last year. As of mid-June, it was unclear if all district-authorized schools had added a parent.

KIPP New Orleans, a charter network that runs seven schools, added parent Cherice Clark to its board in 2016. That’s when its first school returned to local control, KIPP spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said.

“As a former KIPP parent, as an educator and as a member of the community, she brings a lot to the board,” he said. “I think that having a board that has a wide variety of perspectives is important.”

Conflict of interest?

Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. They decide who they hire and what type of curriculum to use. In return for that freedom, schools must meet academic, operational and financial benchmarks.

Members of charter boards get to decide who will serve alongside them. The public has no control over who is chosen or how long they serve. Policies on board governance, from size to how long members serve, vary widely.

Parents are often integral to the founding of single-site charter schools. Some boards are loaded with parents. Large charter networks may not have had any parents on their boards.

Roemer said she spoke against the parent requirement when it was suggested at the Orleans Parish School Board meeting in September 2015 — not against the idea itself, but against adopting it without researching it first.

“We thought that it started becoming prescriptive of who should be on the board,” she said — which runs counter to the autonomy that is core to the charter movement.

“The desire to have a more diverse community … is a laudable one,” Ostberg said. “But I think maybe this wasn’t fully thought out in the context of all the other rules and expectations around boards.”

Roemer doesn’t think there’s any legal issue with having parents serve. “I think some people believe it’s a conflict because they worry as a parent, are you able to look at the school as a whole?” she said.

Patrick Dobard, the executive director of New Schools for New Orleans, supports the requirement, saying it respects the autonomy of charter boards and ensures they’re representative and diverse.

But, he said, “Any future proposed changes to this policy that would further restrict the flexibility and autonomy boards have to determine their membership should be avoided.”

Requirement is now written in law for Orleans Parish

Charter boards added parents and alumni in the months leading up to July 1, when the Orleans Parish School Board took control of nearly all the charter schools in the city.

In mid-June, Crescent City Schools added two parents to its board. CEO Kate Mehok said her board approached the search process the same as for other board members.

A handful of charter schools in the city still answer to the state school board. They aren’t covered by school district policy.

In October, they too will have to add a parent or alumnus. That’s when a similar law sponsored by Bishop goes into effect.

Bishop doesn’t believe the requirement will present any conflicts.

Schools “can decide how exactly that person gets there,” he said. “But we just wanted to make sure we had the voice of one of those people included.”

He doesn’t believe the community can be represented by just by requiring an alumnus to be on the board.

“The reason why alumni alone did not work was because many of the schools were so young they don’t have alumni yet,” he said.

If the policy aims to get parents more involved, Roemer said there are plenty of ways to do that.

“It feels good. It sounds good. Who wants to be against it?” she asked. “But does it really improve governance as a whole? I don’t know that it does.”

Once filled with parents, a local school board now bans them

Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, which falls under the oversight of the state board of education, is a little too familiar with having a lot of parents on its board.

From 2012 to 2014, the school was roiled by disagreements between two factions of parents, leadership turnover and financial problems.

The school added its second grade class out of sequence in 2012. A few years later, a parent who had been on the board at the time admitted she did so because she had been pressured by other board members, some of whom were parents of students.

The state stepped in to help the small charter school search for a new leader and rebuild its board. Roemer’s group paid for the consultant who helped them.

In 2016, the board voted to ban parents and grandparents from serving on the board.

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...