Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

New Beginnings will surrender Kennedy HS, Capdau charters at the end of school year

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation voted unanimously Thursday to surrender the charters for both of its schools — John F. Kennedy High School and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The move comes amid third-party, local school district and state education department investigations into allegations of grade-fixing and other problems at Kennedy High School.

“The things that I have learned in this process have been incredibly disturbing and saddening,” New Beginnings Board President Raphael Gang said. “While we can’t share all of the details of the investigation, it has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through to learn about the things that have happened to our students.”

The scandal has rocked the 690-student school, resulting in multiple investigations, a referral to the state inspector general and a lawsuit against the school where the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status. Some 2019 seniors are scrambling to make up credits they’d been told they earned when they walked across the stage at a mid-May commencement ceremony, only to learn one month later nearly half of those 177 students weren’t eligible for a diploma.

Earlier in the week, the charter network promised to share investigation results with the district in response to an escalated warning. But it’s unclear if it’s complete.

After Kennedy fallout, school district seeks assistant director of HS accountability

In the wake of a scandal involving alleged grade-fixing and error-filled student transcripts that left half of the 2019 seniors at John F. Kennedy High School ineligible to graduate, Orleans Parish schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is looking to hire someone to audit all city high school students’ transcripts.

The school district has posted a job opening for an assistant director of high school accountabilityto design an auditing process and conduct annual audits at the high schools. The district wants applications in by next week.

The Lens obtained documents the school district used to evaluate Kennedy last fall, which included site-visit observations, a review of teachers’ certifications and background checks and a review of five special education files. The district employee also sat in on a few classes.

They did not appear to evaluate Kennedy’s course offerings or student transcripts and whether they met state standards for graduation. Lewis granted the Gentilly high school a five-year contract renewal in December.

Council, environmental coalition announce plans to increase city’s renewable energy portfolio

City Councilwoman and utility committee chair Helena Moreno announced plans on Tuesday for three solar generation projects that, according to a press release, would represent a 20-fold increase in the amount of New Orleans power coming from renewables.

The package of solar projects includes a 20 megawatt plant in eastern New Orleans and two power purchase agreements for 70 megawatts from solar facilities in Washington and St. James Parishes.

“This is nothing less than a transformational moment for the City of New Orleans,” Moreno said in the press release. “If anything, this past week again reminds us we are in fact, a coastal city with a vulnerable population on the very front lines of climate change. Therefore, we must take bold steps to address the crisis head-on.”

City Council talks solar energy and short-term rentals at Wednesday committee meetings

The New Orleans City Council utility committee on Wednesday advanced a plan for Entergy New Orleans to add 90 megawatts of solar energy to its portfolio.

“This has been a really drawn-out process that started all the way back in 2016,” Councilwoman and utility chair Helena Moreno said. “The council has had to come in multiple times to push Entergy to make all of this work and get to where we are today.”

The plan includes a 20 megawatt solar plant in eastern New Orleans, a 50 megawatt solar generation facility in Washington Parish and a power purchase agreement that would bring in 20 megawatts of solar power from St. James Parish. According to Moreno, the additional power will cost $1.50 a month for the average residential Entergy New Orleans customer.

“It also comes with economic benefits in terms of job creation, new spending and overall boost to our economy,” she said.

Harry Shearer: The Army Corps of Engineers has failed New Orleans

We got lucky. After threatening over 20 inches of rain, Barry turned into barely a drizzle in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Governor John Bel Edwards has taken to the airwaves to extol the performance of our $14B flood defense. But let’s not get giddy. What really saved us was the influx of dry wind from northeast of the incipient hurricane, apparently a natural occurrence. As to the works of man, what follows is a wakeup call.

New Orleans has enjoyed an unusual gift from the weather gods, a decade-plus diversion of the hurricane track from Louisiana to either Texas or the Atlantic Coast. With the exception of Hurricane Isaac (2012), about which more in a moment, we have been spared a serious test of the new “hurricane risk reduction system” built here post-2005 by the same agency whose mis- and malfeasances (amply documented in the ILIT and Team Louisiana reports) almost killed this city. We have been able, after the bereavement and the fraught work of rebuilding, to relax and enjoy our temporary good fortune.”

The unacceptable arrest of musician Eugene Grant should be the catalyst for change

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans’ Executive Director Ethan Ellestad reflects on a musicians arrest on Frenchmen Street: “Monday, July 8th, 2019 started with a celebration of the life of trumpeter Dave Bartholomew in Gentilly, and ended with the arrest of trumpeter Eugene Grant on Frenchmen Street —perfectly encapsulating New Orleans’ tendency to simultaneously honor and criminalize its most famous cultural traditions.

While a lot has been written about the incident that culminated in Eugene’s arrest— which has made national news— one fact remains indisputable: the arrest and proceeding rough treatment by the New Orleans Police Department was unacceptable. Anyone who spends even a little time on Frenchmen Street knows Eugene, and knows him to be a good natured, friendly young man who ultimately just wants to make music and entertain others. To see the now viral footage of Eugene held on the ground by two NOPD officers with tasers in their hands was shocking. It should have never happened, and the incident was close enough to a hypothetical worst-case scenario that it should give everyone pause.

So how did we get here, and how do we make sure it never happens again?”

Behind The Lens episode 41: ‘It has been one of the most depressing things that I’ve ever seen in my entire career.’

This week on Behind The Lens: Environmental activists filed a lawsuit against the St James Parish Council over what they say was a secret meeting about a proposed $1.25 billion chemical plant proposed in the parish. Anne Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade joins us.

And: Help Wanted. The Orleans Parish school district is hiring someone to conduct annual auditsof student transcripts, and a new charter operator for two schools as the New Beginnings Schools Foundation surrenders its charter. Marta Jewson has the details on the latest fallout from a recent graduation scandal at Kennedy High School.

Also, the New Orleans City Council is starting the long process of authorizing a tax on short term rentals as part of the Mayor’s “fair share” infrastructure funding deal. Michael Isaac Stein has an update.

Behind The Lens is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and Stitcher.

Council raises concerns about accountability, affordable housing funds as it starts process to bring short-term rental tax to a public vote

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday took the initial step to set up a citywide vote on a new short-term rental tax.

The potential tax is part of a broader infrastructure deal that was brokered by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration and the tourism industry during the legislative session that ended in June. The deal included Act 169, which allows the council to levy a tax of up to 6.75 percent on short-term rentals, but only if New Orleans residents vote in favor of it.

Thursday’s motion was only passed to give public notice that on Aug. 8, the council will vote on the language of the ballot measure. If that also passes, the vote will be set for Nov. 16.

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...