Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. Credit: Dominic Scott / The Lens

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy may soon have to make cuts to stay within its budget for the rest of the school year. The Central City charter school faces a $264,000 deficit, its chief financial officer told Harney board members at a meeting on Monday.

The reason for the projected shortfall, he said, was the school doesn’t have enough students. And it doesn’t appear it will be able to fix that problem because the Orleans Parish school district has cut the school off from OneApp, the district’s centralized enrollment system.

Principal Ashanta Wyatt said a family interested in transferring to Harney because it is closest to their house came in last week. But the kids couldn’t enroll.

“When we send them to OneApp they say we’re full,” she told the charter’s finance committee.

“We are not full,” Board President Rev. Charles Southall III said. In fact, the school has 250 students, Wyatt said, 17 fewer students than district records show and 27 fewer than the school needs to balance its budget.

”When we send them to OneApp they say we’re full.”—Principal Ashanta Wyatt, Harney charter school

Harney is one of four New Orleans charter schools where the district has suspended enrollment because they could close at the end of the school year, according to district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis.

This is the first year the district has done this “because this is the first year they have full control over the enrollment system.” Until this school year, the state-run Recovery School District ran OneApp, along with most of the schools in the city. But over the summer, RSD schools were transferred back to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board, marking the first time since Hurricane Katrina that the majority of New Orleans schools have been under local control.

The decision appears aimed to prevent disruption for students, should a school close and they have to transfer. But advocates for charter school independence might see the decision as premature.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. The four schools have contracts with the district to operate through the end of the school year in May, and the district has not yet announced plans to close them. That decision won’t be made until December after school scores come out.

”The Orleans Parish School Board will not allow additional seats to be filled at schools that are in danger of losing their charter.”—Dominique Ellis, Orleans Parish school district

The other three schools are McDonogh 32 Charter School, William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy, and Medard H. Nelson Charter School.* They are all rated F — failing to meet state goals on standardized testing — and could be closed as a result. The district isn’t confident they will meet charter renewal expectations.

“The Orleans Parish School Board will not allow additional seats to be filled at schools that are in danger of losing their charter due to poor academic performance or that have several issues of non-compliance,” Ellis wrote in an email Friday.

No clear policy on OneApp cutoff

Orleans Parish public schools have seen a three-year decline in state performance ratings. These letter grades have high-stakes for charter schools, particularly in years when they face charter renewal.

Fischer and McDonogh 32, both overseen by the Algiers Charter Schools, each had an F in 2017 and 2016. Fischer also had an F in 2015. According to state records, Fischer enrolled 359 students last year and McDonogh 32 had 397 students.

Algiers Charter Schools spokeswoman Tammi Major said the network had no comment on the district’s decision to halt enrollment.

Nelson is overseen by the New Beginnings Schools Foundation. It’s had an F for three years in a row. Nelson enrolled 400 students last year.

New Beginnings officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Unlike the other three, Harney, is not considered a failing school. But the school has faced numerous district-issued warnings — for problems related to finances, special education and board governance — over the past year. Those warnings could put their charter renewal in jeopardy.

At a board meeting last month, Harney’s board members questioned whether the district could halt enrollment because the school has a C rating.

”Without the policy you risk the politics.”—Caroline Roemer, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools

While state law appears to give district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. the authority to control enrollment at charter schools, the school board does not have a clear policy outlining how and why a school can be cut off from OneApp.

Caroline Roemer, the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said the district needs a more thorough policy.

“I think there should be further policies created that are very specific to when a school doesn’t meet renewal standards,” she said.

Roemer said a policy should set clear circumstances for taking action. And, she said, a better defined policy would ensure that schools across the district are held to the same standards.

“Without the policy you risk the politics,” Roemer said.

Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said no one at the state level could recall halting enrollment at a charter school before it lost its contract.

Budget impact from low enrollment

At Harney’s finance committee meeting Monday, board members were concerned about the projected enrollment. Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis from state and parish government.

277Harney enrollment target to avoid cuts250Current Harney enrollment

The school has enrolled 250 students, Wyatt said, despite the 267 OneApp reports show.

“We have to come up with 27 additional students. Or, the other side of that, is we have to cut or come up with a combination,” James Fulton said. Fulton’s company is contracted to do the work of a chief financial officer for Harney.**

Wyatt said the school is hosting an event Thursday which she hopes will raise community interest.

She plans to enroll students “as soon as we can get through the barrier,” she told board members.

The district may allow students to enroll in the four schools, but only if other schools are full.

“Seats at these schools will only be filled if there isn’t sufficient capacity in the system,” Ellis wrote.

Southall did not offer comment to The Lens but said at Monday’s meeting he would be working with the board’s attorney and Lewis in the coming days.

*Correction: This story initially misstated the name of Medard H. Nelson school. (Sept. 10, 2018)

**Clarification: This story has clarified that James Fulton’s company performs financial work for the charter school. (Sept. 11, 2018)

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...