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

Thirteen-year-old Erriona Wiliams is spending this week between the library and her home, completing a dad-assigned book report to present to her family on Friday.

The eighth-grader has been out of school since before Christmas during an extra-long winter break that allowed the Orleans Parish school district to take over Edgar Harney charter school.

But Erriona’s mother, Lateisha Vallery-Broden, decided Tuesday night that Erriona would not be returning to the school when it reopens on Monday. After speaking with her daughter, she said she has concerns about one of the teachers. She also said she learned learned that there had been two fires at the school last fall that she was never told about.

The Lens confirmed that there was one recent fire at the school. Online 911 records show that police responded to an aggravated arson call in the 2500 block of Willow Street, where Harney is located, on Dec. 18. Police and Fire Department spokesmen confirmed that the incident took place at the school.

Even though she’s pulling her daughter out, Vallery-Broden said she still supports the district’s decision to take the reins from the nonprofit that had run Harney for years.

Read our previous coverage of Harney charter schoolSchool paid its CFO extra to do accounting work, ethics board allegesHarney continues to rack up warnings, ranging from physical restraint of a student to inadequate special-ed servicesBoard president charged $1,500 in fine dining on Harney charter school’s credit cardHarney charter school withheld employees retirement funds for monthsHarney charter’s bank account stretched thin while board account sat flush ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Harney charter school to close at end of school year

“I feel like it was a good time to transition because the kids have not been getting a quality learning since all of this started,” she said.

Communication has been lacking, Vallery-Broden said. As of Wednesday, she said she still didn’t know who the principal was or which bus company would have picked up Erriona on Monday, had she decided to return. She’s spending the day searching for a new school through the city’s centralized enrollment system.

Other students should see many familiar faces when they return to school Monday. The charter school formerly had about 40 employees. Twenty-seven Harney employees are returning as district staff, according to the school district’s Senior Communications Manager Ambria Washington. In addition, custodial workers will return to the school, only now they will work for a contractor.

The charter school’s employees had to reapply for their jobs if they wanted to continue to work at the school under district governance. But the new positions are only temporary — the district still plans to close the school at the end of the school year.

“We have deployed a number of full time OPSB staff members with leadership and school support experience that will be working in administrative positions serving the Harney students and families,” Washington wrote in an email.

The district took control of the school this week. Harney’s charter board voted to voluntarily turn in its contract after Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. started revocation proceedings last fall.

Washington said the district has combined two classes into one in two different grade levels. In any class where that happens, she wrote, the district plans to add a teacher’s aide to the classroom.

”I feel like it was a good time to transition because the kids have not been getting a quality learning since all of this started.”—Lateisha Vallery-Broden, Harney parent

The charter school racked up at least nine official warnings last school year, six of those at the most serious level. The infractions ranged from financial mismanagement to improper physical restraint of a student. The district hired a forensic auditor to investigate financial red flags at Harney after The Lens reported the school improperly withheld tens of thousands of dollars from employees’ retirement contributions.

This fall, Lewis hinted that closure was coming when he halted enrollment at Harney early in the 2018-19 school year. Then, after announcing the school would close for failing to comply with state laws and district policies, Lewis sought to revoke the charter contract mid-year. The charter board agreed to turn over the school.

New Orleans is poised to become the first major city in the country without traditional, district-run public schools. Harney is one of three direct-run schools left in the city. It and another, Cypress Academy, are slated to close at the end of the school year. And the third, McDonogh 35 Senior High School, is being handed over InspireNOLA which will simultaneously phase the school out and create a new charter school to replace it.

But it’s possible that other schools could face district takeovers in the future, if only temporarily. Since the return of all Recovery School District charter schools to the Orleans Parish School Board last summer, the central office has become increasingly involved in managing its nearly all-charter district. The district can revoke the charter of any school that fails to meet operational or academic requirements.

Last spring, the district unexpectedly took over Cypress when its board abruptly announced it would be closing with three days notice. And last year, the district threatened to revoke another school’s contract unless it agreed to provide yellow bus transportation to elementary students.

Students at Harney will receive priority status when applying to be placed in new schools next fall. Applications through OneApp, the district’s centralized enrollment system, are due at the end of February.

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...