Alex Lafargue and his son, Alongkoin, at Medard Nelson Elementary, where Alongkoin goes to school. Nelson is one of five New Orleans public schools slated for closure this spring. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Part one in a series on school closures by education reporter Marta Jewson.

Closing a school because it’s not meeting academic standards may seem like an extreme measure. But it’s baked into the New Orleans school model. Education reform advocates say schools need to be held accountable for academic performance. While the district now requires failing schools to develop improvement plans, it doesn’t have direct control over day-to-day operations — like hiring or test preparation — at independent charter schools.

They do have the power to decide which schools will stay open and which will close.

“Closure is a very difficult and unpleasant decision that is part of the landscape in New Orleans,” said Caroline Roemer, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter organization. “It’s part of what it means to be a charter school.”

But this high-stakes, market-based approach to public education can be a disruptive process for the city’s 45,000 students, their parents and educators. It has resulted in a revolving door of education providers — mainly nonprofits operating charter schools — and a yearly scattering of students and teachers from closing schools.

Hard-hit Blind River wildlife could suffer badly in Mosaic wastewater release

A biologist interviewed by The Lens explained why the river and the region it winds through could be so severely impacted, should substantial amounts of wastewater escape Mosaic’s property and get into the wetlands.

“You’re talking about some pretty low pH’s, which means that the acidity level is high,” said Dr. Phil Bucolo, a visiting assistant professor at Loyola’s Biological Sciences & Environment Program.

The acidity level of the wastewater — 2 to 3 pH — has been compared by the company to that of lemon juice. According to Bucolo, the acidity level itself isn’t necessarily dangerous to humans, when considered alone and not factoring in possible sodium and sulfate concentrations in the water. But fish in this environment simply never evolved to be able to handle such acidic levels of water. They would be badly impacted, as would much smaller animals and even plant life.

“When you’re talking about changes in pH and the lowering, especially at these extremely low pH’s like 3’s and 2’s like we’re talking about, I would say that could have direct implications on cellular function,” he said. “Uptake of roots of a tree that’s extremely close to this — and you’re uptaking pH’s of 2 — I’d say that could be easily death to a larger vascular organism like a tree.”

Entergy fined $5 million, can move forward with new power plant

The New Orleans City Council voted this week to fine Entergy $5 million over its role in an astrotufing scandal. But the council opted against repealing its March 2018 vote approving a $211 million power plant in eastern New Orleans, to the disappointment of many in attendance at this week’s meeting.

Nearly three hours of public comment was dominated by power plant opponents, many of whom were residents of New Orleans East who said they didn’t want the pollution in their neighborhood. The comments not only criticized Entergy, but called into question the neutrality of some members of the council who have received money from Entergy. Some commenters asked them to recuse themselves from the vote.

“When we talk about immorality, we must talk about how sitting councilmembers have been in the pockets of Entergy at one time or another,” the Rev. Gregory Manning said.

In May 2018, the current City Council convened for a press conference to announce an independent investigation into Entergy’s role in the paid actor scheme. A reporter asked, “Are any of you receiving any kind of business deals or anything other than your regulatory business with Entergy? And have you received any campaign donations from them?”

Every council member said no except for Councilman Joseph Giarrusso, who was absent. But that wasn’t true. As it turns out, the majority of the council has either worked for Entergy at some point or received campaign donations for their political action committee, ENPAC Louisiana.

Public defender sues city for records on surveillance camera locations

Orleans Parish Public Defender Laura Bixby on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans for refusing to turn over records showing the locations of hundreds of crime cameras it has installed since 2017.

The city denied Bixby’s August public records request, claiming that disclosing the records could expose information related to terrorism prevention. But two civil rights groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Louisiana, who are representing Bixby, say that terrorism prevention is just an excuse.

The cameras, which feed live video to the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center, are primarily used for run-of-the-mill law enforcement and criminal prosecutions, not terrorism prevention, the lawsuit says.

The suit names Collin Arnold, in his official capacity as the city’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, as the defendant. Arnold’s department oversees the camera network. It asks an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge to order the city to turn over the records Bixby requested.

Bixby says she needs the camera-location records to effectively represent her clients. Camera footage, her lawsuit says, has the potential to be used to establish a criminal suspect’s alibi, possibly away from the scene of a crime.

“Just as these cameras capture incriminating evidence, they can also help prove an alibi or support a claim of innocence,” Bixby said in a press release. “Public defenders should have the same right to know the whereabouts of this footage as other members of the criminal justice system.”

School district cites “exceptional circumstance” at Harney fund transfer

Midyear school takeovers can leave federal funding in question. After taking over Harney in January, the district ran into an unexpected roadblock: it couldn’t access roughly $431,000 in funding that had been allotted to Edgar Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy when it was a charter school.

That’s because Spirit of Excellence, Harney’s charter operator, was considered its own school district, just like the Orleans Parish school district and most charter schools. State officials said they couldn’t transfer money from one district to another midyear.

District officials requested  budget adjustment in part to make up for the lost federal funding and in part to pay for additional issues the central office identified, according to district documents.

Behind The Lens episode 20: ‘Not two cents’

This week on Behind The Lens, demands for accountability for Entergy New Orleans at a public hearing before the City Council did not prompt a change in course for the utility’s new power plant. Plant opponents not only criticized Entergy; they also called into question the neutrality of some council members who have received money from the company or its political action committee. That’s something our own Michael Isaac Stein investigated.

in St. James Parish, more movement continues to be reported along the north wall of Mosaic Fertilizer’s Gypsum Stack No. 4. That pile holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of acidic wastewater. The company says the overall rate of movement has slowed substantially, but the La. Department of environmental quality remains in a “continuing emergency condition.” Loyola biologist Phil Bucolo says a release of the wastewater into the region’s wetlands could be a deadly emergency for wildlife.

And, for more than a decade, most public schools in New Orleans were overseen by state bureaucrats in Baton Rouge. That changed last summer, when a state law passed in 2016 moved oversight of most schools from the state back to the locally elected school board and its superintendent.

This school year — the first since the transition — those local officials decided to close five city schools. The Lens’ Marta Jewson discusses her new report on New Orleans school closures, “Class Dismissed: How and When New Orleans schools close.”

Opinion: Fighting Formosa in solidarity with Rise St. James

Columnist Orissa Arend:

“There is a direct line from slavery to African-American towns in the Fifth District of St. James Parish — Welcome and Freetown, for example. They were settled by men and women who beat long odds and survived forced and frequently lethal labor in the ante-bellum sugar cane fields. But during the past 75 years, towns like Sellars, Wallace, Sunrise, and Morrisonville have been wiped off the map altogether by industries that, as Anne Rolfes has reported, offered no compensation to residents for taking their homes or even an acknowledgment that the towns ever existed. Rolfes is founder and leader of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that fights industrial pollution.

“The Fifth District post office has closed. Welcome’s evacuation route has become a private road. Residential property values have plummeted. As Rolfes writes: ‘It is much cheaper to expedite the death of a town than to compensate people by paying a fair price for their homes and land.’ “

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...