Harney charter school's board at a meeting in August 2018. The board, which included both Southall and Ryan, ran the school until January, when it was taken over by the Orleans Parish school district. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Orleans Parish school district employees Kellie Peterson and Erica Murray sat quietly at student lunch tables earlier this month, observing the board meeting of a Central City charter school facing an array of governance and financial problems.

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy has received at least 10 warning letters from the district in the past year – for sloppy financial management, failing to provide adequate special education services and improperly holding onto employee retirement contributions, which the district said may violate federal law.

The board had also fallen to five members, two below the district’s required minimum for charter school boards.

Murray and Peterson’s boss told The Lens they were at the meeting to monitor board compliance. The board elected two new members that night.

The duo is part of a new team in the district’s Office of Equity and Accountability which will conduct ongoing oversight in academic performance, financial sustainability and operational effectiveness.

A wave of central office activity is making it increasingly clear that charter board governance is a priority of the newly unified school district.

“We believe that high functioning charter boards are one of the key successes to our system,” said Amanda Aiken, the district’s senior chief and portfolio officer.

Murray will take the newly created post of charter school compliance director. It’s one of several new positions aimed at educating charter school board members — who are volunteers — and keeping them in line with state law.

The flurry of activity comes as the district has taken control of state-run Recovery School District charters, marking the first time the since Hurricane Katrina that the majority of public schools are under local oversight.

The district has inherited a different type of system than the one it ran pre-Katrina. It’s now made almost entirely out of independent charter schools. And some charter advocates worry that increased board scrutiny may threaten charter schools’ autonomy, which is a central part of the New Orleans education model.

”We are realizing more and more that a lot of the charter boards needed support in making sure they’re compliant.”—Amanda Aiken, Orleans Parish school district

Murray’s work, under Aiken, will include observing board meetings and might include board member training.

“We are realizing more and more that a lot of the charter boards needed support in making sure they’re compliant,” Aiken said.

That includes familiarity with state law, like the state Open Meetings Law which guarantees the public the right to observe meetings, district policy and good governance, she said.

When Murray attends meetings, Aiken said, she’ll also be “getting a feel” for how accessible board meetings are to the public.

“Did the meeting happen in a space and in a way that really anybody can go, and specifically families?” Aiken asked, as an example.

Aiken’s department also introduced a new policy last week that, if approved, would require all new charter board members to undergo district training. Right now, board members are required by the state ethics board to complete ethics training but the district does not have any additional training requirements.

Boards have struggled with compliance

Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. In exchange for the ability to choose their own curriculum, teachers and make their own budgets, charters must meet annual academic, financial and governance benchmarks. Each charter school or network has a self-selected board.

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, where Peterson and Murray sat in earlier this month, has struggled with meeting the district’s financial expectations. In addition to filing late quarterly reports, The Lens found the charter school held onto tens of thousands of dollars in employee retirement contributions for weeks or months before transferring them to retirement accounts.

During the course of reviewing this issue, the district discovered the board was not being upfront about its membership. Though board correspondence to the district claimed seven board members, there were really only five, two shy of the district’s requirement of seven members.

Other charters have struggled to follow the Open Meetings Law. Last year, two charter management organizations that oversee multiple schools, New Orleans College Prep and ReNEW Schools, were both cited by the state for failing to send out legally required notices when they selected new CEO’s.

Lusher Charter School’s board members circumvented state sunshine law by emailing each other during a contentious union drive at the Uptown charter school. The board wanted to avoid talking about the issue in public.

Aiken said board members have sought help from the district.

“I think there’s been a growing understanding in general that they are our partners and we need to make sure we are supporting them and also holding them accountable,” Aiken said.

Part of Murray’s work, she said, will be to observe meetings and watch for compliance with state law.

Murray is familiar with charter board governance. Until August 11, she served as the chairwoman of Audubon Charter School. She will now regulate that same board for the district.

Nahliah Webber, who leads the public policy nonprofit Orleans Public Education Network, said she was a bit concerned that would appear to outside observers to be a conflict of interest.

“How do they make sure it doesn’t look like they are hiring an insider to regulate the group?” Webber asked.

Webber said she’s not suggesting the district intended that, but she thinks the district should address it.

“When we’re thinking about transparency, we’re thinking about all those things and people explaining relationships and what those relationships mean,” she said

District officials did not return a request for comment on Webber’s concerns.

Charter Board Working Group

The district is also seeking the input of charter board leaders.

Orleans Parish School Board member Ethan Ashley has created a charter board member working group. The school board approved it last week.

“I think governance is a huge part of the next frontier to make sure we’re successful,” he said.

The working group will consist of someone from the superintendent’s office, four charter board chairpersons (this must include one single-site charter and a charter management organization), and a representative from the School Leaders Council. The group will also include representatives from several community groups.

“If we as an authorizer aren’t ensuring that were supporting the actual charter boards with information and support that they need to be successful, ultimately I think there will be problems,” Ashley said. “And we don’t need any additional problems.”

The group is charged with defining what charter board members should know and how much training they should receive.

“Dr. Murray will be leading the charter board working group,” Aiken said. “That group’s task is providing recommendations about potential policies we should approve as a board.”

The board has also tasked the working group with ensuring whistleblowers can confidentially report “unethical or unprofessional behavior of a charter board member” to the district.

Is the district infringing on charter autonomy?

Charter boards contract with the district, but the schools operate independently. And charter school advocates value that independence.

Caroline Roemer, the head of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, said board training is important but she thinks the district should focus on results, not micromanaging boards.

Financial and academic requirements are fairly easy for the district to measure because they come down to numbers and the district has a clearly defined definition of compliance in both areas. When it comes to governance, things like public meetings, financial disclosures, ethics trainings and complete financial audits are measurable outputs, she said.

“I think as an authorizer, figuring out how to check schools on that makes complete sense,” she said.

But she said that mandatory board training may go too far.

“Does OPSB think there’s something beyond the compliance that they should be doing?” Roemer wondered. “That gets into best practices and those sorts of things. And I’m not sure that that’s their place.”

It’s unclear exactly what OPSB’s board training may look like. The policy was only announced last week and is months away from being considered for final adoption.

”I’m not sure that’s their place.”—Caroline Roemer, Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools

“I would not say that mandatory training equals high-performing boards,” Roemer said.

She wondered who would facilitate and pay for the sessions and how long they would be.

“When you’re dealing with volunteer boards, that can become burdensome on both sides,” Roemer said of required trainings.

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok also wondered about those things. She welcomed training for new board members. But she also wants to ensure that any future governance policies do not place an undue burden on her staff members to ensure that board members comply.

Aiken said board members would be responsible for reporting on training.

Webber, of the Orleans Public Education Network, said she wonders how the district will navigate both supporting schools and holding them accountable.

”It’s not about autonomy. It’s about students and families.”—Nahliah Webber, Orleans Public Education Network

She said it’s important to ensure “that this decision was made to protect the best interest of students of families. And if that means autonomy is challenged, that’s fine, because it’s not about autonomy. It’s about students and families.”

When asked about how the district’s steps would align with its system of independent schools, Aiken said the training was a key part of that.

“I think this is more so for setting our expectation and letting them understand OPSB policies are things they could get flagged on,” Aiken said.

“I think if anything that supports autonomy,” she said. “I think autonomy only works when people understand how they will be held accountable.”

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...