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Week in Review: School closure decisions pack Orleans school board meeting

Public frustration boils over at meeting on school closures, but board policy stifles comment

Thursday’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting devolved into shouting at times, as frustrated citizens struggled to conform to the district’s public comment policy following school closure and relocation announcements.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s biggest news included five school closure recommendations, a few school relocations and several charter approvals. Lewis’ recommendations — presented as a report — take effect unless the board overrides them with a two-thirds vote. If the board does not formally move for a vote on them, however, they are not considered “action items.” And the public is not entitled to comment on them.

Lona Hankins, a parent and former district employee, implored the board to hold its committee meetings — where board members discuss most of their policy decisions — at times and in places that are accessible to the public. They are often held early on Tuesday afternoons at the district’s Algiers headquarters.

“Parents and the public can’t participate in that,” Hankins said. “You’re leaving parents out. You’re leaving the community out.”

Superintendent moves for mid-year charter revocation for Harney academy

Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wants to revoke Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy’s charter mid-year after financial mismanagement and leadership instability, he told Orleans Parish School Board committee members at a Tuesday meeting.

Last week, Lewis told families the district would not renew the school’s charter and it would close at the end of the school year due to several areas of concern, including special education shortcomings, “high-risk” contracts and failure to comply with state law and district policy. Lewis said the district referred some of its findings to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, suggesting that Harney’s board — which is led by the Rev. Charles Southall III and also includes former First NBC Bank CEO Ashton Ryan — may face a criminal investigation.

The charter responded by expanding its legal team.

“But this is only November and we have until the end of the school year,” Lewis said Tuesday. “Based on where we are right now, I am going to move forward with revocation of the school for the remainder of the school year.”

Cantrell traffic enforcement plan could cause problems for public defenders

Many New Orleans drivers rejoiced two weeks ago when Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration announced that it would take down a small portion of the city’s traffic cameras. But that jubilation may have been premature.

At his New Orleans City Council budget hearing on Tuesday, New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison informed the City Council about plans to ramp up traffic stops by NOPD officers as part of a new “enhanced traffic enforcement program.”

The Chief District Defender at the Orleans Public Defenders office, Derwyn Bunton, said that this program — which he thinks is likely to lead to increased arrests, therefore increasing the office’s workload —  will make it difficult for his office to keep up.

“Our ability to defend the constitution, protect the innocent, and do our job inside the criminal justice system is actually getting harder with this traffic enhancement program,” he told The Lens.

Arts Council urges City Council to increase funding for municipal arts grants

At Wednesday’s City Council budget hearing, the Arts Council of New Orleans urged the City Council to dedicate more funding to municipal arts grants.

“We know there are competing priorities, but support for art isn’t ‘nice to have,’ it’s essential,” said Arts Council Executive Director Heidi Schmalbach. Schmalbach was joined by Joycelyn Reynolds, who has managed the the city’s grants on behalf of the Arts Council for over three decades.

The Arts Council is a nonprofit that has managed the city’s Community Arts Grants since the 1980s. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s 2019 budget proposes giving $405,000 to the program, the same level of funding it received this year. The Arts Council has requested $450,000.

Orleans Superintendent recommends closing four charter schools

Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. on Monday announced his plan to close four charter schools where he had already halted enrollment. The news comes days after the state Department of Education released annual school ratings.

Last week, Lewis said he planned to recommend closing Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, saying the charter school’s governing board repeatedly failed — at a level he had never before seen — to comply with state and district policies and laws. And over the past few months, he strongly hinted that Medard Nelson Elementary School, William J. Fischer Elementary School and McDonogh 32 Elementary School would close at the end of the school year.

Closing those four schools is exactly what he recommended on Monday.

Cypress Academy will close, students to transfer to Foundation Prep next year

For the second time this year, Cypress Academy families packed into the small school’s cafeteria to learn its fate: The school will close at the end of this school year, Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. announced Monday night. Students will automatically be enrolled at Foundation Preparatory Academy, a nearby charter school.

Earlier on Monday, the district confirmed that Lewis recommended four other schools for closure due to poor performance and mismanagement.

The Cypress announcement came only six months after the school district promised to run the school directly for two years. Monday’s decision means that as of next school year, the district will no longer run any elementary schools directly.

“It’s very important we don’t keep our families in limbo and get to a point of providing stability,” Lewis told families about his decision to close Cypress.

But parents in the crowd weren’t happy. That’s a line they felt they’d heard before.

Behind The Lens episode 7: ‘You’re out of order’

The annual charter school shake-up and city budget hearings dominated this week’s news. Producer Tom Wright talks with reporter Marta Jewson about a school board meeting that boiled over as the public learned which schools were closing but couldn’t comment on the superintendent’s decisions. Wright talks to reporter Michael Isaac Stein about city budget hearings, where most city agencies plead for more money.

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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.