Mary D. Coghill Charter School board members listen to NOLA Public Schools' Amanda Aiken on Oct. 22, 2019 as she answers questions about the upcoming charter renewal process. Coghill is projected to receive an 'F' rating which would make it ineligible for charter renewal. Then another charter group would likely take over next school year.

Facing a likely F rating in this year’s round of state school assessments, the board president of Mary D. Coghill Charter School hinted that she’d had conversations with NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. about surrendering the elementary school’s charter in the middle of this school year, possibly over a break during the coming holiday season. 

“He himself said, that would be the time to do it,” Audrey Woods said. 

NOLA Public Schools Senior Chief and Schools Officer Amanda Aiken was at the meeting to answer board questions on the charter school’s future. Coghill is up for a renewal of its charter this year, but in September, district officials warned that because of its academic performance, the rewal is unlikely to be granted. 

Responding to Woods, Aiken said Lewis was likely talking about the circumstances under which Harney elementary school was taken over by the district and later closed. Last year, under pressure from NOLA Public Schools officials, Harney’s governing board surrendered the school’s charter — giving control over to the district — during winter break. The district closed the school at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. 

“I think he was referencing the time that it was done,” Aiken said, disputing that Lewis was discussing the possibility of Coghill to give up its charter. 

“No,” Woods asserted. “I asked would this be the time for us, and he said this would be the time for us.” 

“We encourage that you continue on with your contract because [surrendering the charter mid-year] would be a breach of contract,” Aiken said. 

But Woods said when she spoke with Lewis about it, he never mentioned that. Aiken again said she believed he’d likely been talking about Harney, not Coghill. Harney, she said, had already breached its contract due to other violations before surrendering its charter. 

Coghill has received a number of district warnings over the last year as well. The district cited the school for issues related to a board member and later, for failing to provide special education services to nine students. After the district received a parent complaint, administrators investigated and found eight other students who were owed services.

On Tuesday, The Lens asked Coghill’s newly installed Head of School Rayven Calloway whether the school had complied with the special education fixes ordered by the district. Coghill’s new attorney Mag Bickford stepped in and said the school had no comment. 

Asked if the district wanted to comment on Woods’ conversation with Lewis, district Communications Director Tania Dall provided a statement attributed to NOLA Public Schools.

“In carrying out our work as authorizer, there are conversations with charter boards and charter leaders with regards to  their school performance and eligibility for renewal, per the policy framework. At this time Mary D. Coghill is under review for renewal and final recommendations will be given at the November board meeting cycle.”

A mid-year transfer

Should the Coghill board further discuss surrendering its charter, the district would likely discourage it. 

When Harney surrendered its charter, the district lost access to at least $333,000 in federal pass-through funding dedicated to Harney because the Louisiana Department of Education said the money couldn’t be transferred mid-year. The district, which took control of the school, had to subsidize the school’s operations with general fund money. 

There were other consequences, including the requirement that all Harney staff reapply to become Orleans Parish School Board employees. The district also extended students’ winter break by an extra week to complete the changeover. 

Aiken was at Tuesday’s board meeting to update Coghill board members about the charter renewal process. She was joined by district staffers Ismail El-Shaakir, who ran Harney after the district took it over, and Litouri Smith, who lead Cypress Academy when the district took that charter school over in 2018. 

Coghill’s charter expires at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and without the superintendent’s recommendation for a renewal, the charter group will have to hand off the school to another charter group. 

“Based off of preliminary data this school is showing it will be an F,” Aiken said, noting it would be ineligible for a renewal based on district policies.

That grade puts the school in jeopardy of losing its charter at the end of the school year. The district has already told Coghill families the charter school likely won’t be eligible for a charter renewal after grades are released. Coghill was rated a D in 2018.

One board member asked when the Orleans Parish School Board would approve any recommendation about Coghill’s closure, but Aiken informed her the board does not have to vote on these matters. The seven-member board can override Lewis’ recommendations with five votes. Lewis’ recommendation for renewal will likely be presented Nov. 19 at Orleans Parish School Board committee meetings.

When a charter group loses a charter, the district can take the school over, give it to another group or close it. Last year, five schools were shut down rather than taken over.

Whether it’s a school closure or “transformation,” as district officials now call a takeover, the process plays out over the course of the school year. 

As soon as one month into a new school year, families and school staff can learn that an expected low state rating may shutter their school at the end of the academic year. Coghill families got a letter from the district on Sept. 16, alerting them the school was likely to receive an F. That was just five weeks into the school year. 

The process of finding a new operator, and allowing families and staff to have informal input in that decision, takes months. As the process plays out, children sit in low-rated schools and enrollment may shrink while staff likely begin to think about their futures as well. Even if a school is taken over by a new charter group, staff must reapply for their jobs.

On Tuesday, board member Terri Baptiste-Franklin asked Aiken to relay a message to the superintendent.

“I’m going to request that he allow board members who are currently community participants and also community members who are embedded in the school to participate in the selection process of any charter,” she said. 

“I hope it doesn’t happen. But if it happens, I want that option available to us.”

The district generally holds private meetings with families, staff and sometimes alumni to get their input on potential new charter operators. 

Aiken said school scores are expected the first week of November. After they are released, Coghill will begin to learn its fate. 

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.