Schools
 

Orleans School Board approves $450 million annual budget

The Orleans Parish School Board approved a $450 million 2019 budget on Thursday, the first since the July 1 return of all Recovery School District charter schools to local control.

Most of that money passes through the district’s central office to the city’s charter schools. The district oversees 76 charter schools, two traditional schools and a contract school for students in custody at the city’s juvenile detention center.

With all formerly state-run Recovery School District charters schools back under local control, the board has created new departments for charter oversight. It released a new executive organizational chart Thursday.

The district created the Office of School Support and Improvement to support schools and the Office of Equity and Accountability to manage the charter authorization process and hold schools accountable to their charter agreements.

Ken Ducote, the head of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, praised the administration for combining the two districts’ budgets. However, after an unforeseen funding shortfall last spring, Ducote urged the district to include enrollment “assumptions and trends” in future reports so schools can make budget adjustments.

Last school year the district saw a simultaneous increases in overall enrollment and the number of students with extreme special education needs. Because the district allocates per-pupil funding based on student characteristics, the increase in special education students, who receive additional funding, led to a decrease in the standard per-pupil allotment.

The board paid special attention to Lafayette Academy, the Carrollton charter school run by the Choice Foundation, because it had to relocate after contractors botched the handling of asbestos-containing material this summer, possibly contaminating the school.

The board alloted $2 million from the general fund to help the school replace equipment and supplies.

Choice Foundation CEO Mickey Landry praised district administration for finding Lafayette a new campus.

“I come really to thank you all and to thank all of OPSB for the incredible amount of work that has been done in a short period of time,” Landry said.

The board also voted unanimously to allow its lawyer to take legal action, possibly including a lawsuit, against the city of New Orleans to recover property taxes the city may have improperly withheld from the school district. As The Lens first reported in May, the city has diverted millions of dollars in dedicated property taxes — for schools, public safety and infrastructure — to meet its obligations to several state retirement funds. The tax diversions may be against the law, and another agency has already sued the city to recover its portion of the taxes.

Speaking of withheld funds, the district hired Postlethwaite & Netterville to conduct a forensic audit at Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. The district cited the Central City charter school for improperly withholding employees’ retirement contributions for weeks, sometimes months. The late payments didn’t include any interest or money to account for what employees may have made in investments.

The district may use the company to examine other schools with financial issues.

The board also approved a contract with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to review charter school applications. That item came to the board without a recommendation after budget committee members split 2-2 on the item on Tuesday.

Board members Woody Koppel Jr. and Leslie Ellison voted against the administration’s recommendation of NACSA at a Tuesday committee meeting. Both said they thought the district should consider more than one applicant for such an important task. They said NACSA was the only applicant.

On Thursday, board member Ethan Ashley gave pause before voting and asked that the board expand its search in the future. Ellison voted against the contract.

The board broke up the administration’s $5 million request for a transitional fund for McDonogh 35 Senior High School. The district is phasing out the historic high school. This year it only has sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Board member Ben Kleban offered a substitute motion to allot $2 million for the “McDonogh 35 Transition Fund” this year with the opportunity to request more in future years.

Kleban said he wanted to support the school but also wanted to see continued progress. The resolution allows for up to $1.5 million in each of the two following school years.

Several alumni spoke in favor of the fund. The board approved the initial $2 million.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said McDonogh 35 alumni Ronald McGee.

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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.