Orleans Parish School Board President John Brown Sr. speaks with Mary D. Coghill Charter School supporters after a vote to keep the school under current leadership failed. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

At a packed Orleans Parish School Board meeting Thursday night, board members failed to muster enough votes to overturn NOLA Public Schools Superintendent’s Henderson Lewis Jr.’s recommendation against renewing the charters for Mary D. Coghill Charter School and Joseph A. Craig Charter School. 

After more than an hour of public comment, a proposal to keep Coghill under current leadership — the Better Choice Foundation — fell just one vote shy of the five required to turn over Lewis’ recommendation. That vote, the second of the evening, drew loud cries of protest from the room because no one could distinguish which board member was voting which way. Amid the confusion, the board switched to a roll-call vote, calling out members one by one. As it was concluding, board member Nolan Marshall tried to table the item, but that failed. 

The vote was 4-2. Board member Sarah Usdin was absent due to a family emergency. 

“The motion fails with that vote,” board attorney Sharonda Williams said. 

Earlier in the evening, Lewis announced that the district plans to run Coghill directly for the 2019-2020 school year. That means New Orleans, which this year became the first major city with no traditional, district-run public schools, will once again have at least one traditional public school. 

The motion to keep Craig open under Friends of King Schools management failed on a 2-4 vote. Marshall and Brown were the only two who voted to overturn Lewis each time. Board members Leslie Ellison and Ethan Ashely supported overruling Lewis on Coghill but not Craig. Craig will go to one of the two charter groups interested in taking it over next school year. 

The board then moved into executive session as the schools’ supporters rushed to the front of the room. 

After the meeting, OPSB President John Brown Sr. empathized with the school communities and said he was glad the public had a chance to speak. 

“I went to these schools myself. I taught in these schools. I was a principal in these schools. So I understand the passion,” Brown said in an interview. 

“We need to look at how we can … do this in such a way that people don’t feel like we are taking the schools and dividing them up because many of these people will still be working in these schools and the kids will be in the schools,” he said. 

Marshall said he hoped to create groups that would allow the former boards to continue to be involved in the school community. 

“Well, I’m never pleased when things don’t go my way,” Marshall said lightheartedly in an interview after the meeting.

He welcomed Coghill’s move to district control. 

“I welcome the opportunity for the board to be more directly involved in educating the children,” he said. “And I’d love to support that effort.”

Board hears from the public

Staff, students and parents from Coghill and Craig, in addition to members of Step Up Louisiana, packed the board room Thursday night and made impassioned pleas to keep their schools under current management. 

Eloise Matthews, a parent of four sons and school bus driver, said she couldn’t bear for Coghill to shut down. 

“For the last three years, three of my sons’ schools have been shut down,” Matthews said.

“I chose Coghill,” she said. “So I ask from my heart to yours that y’all will consider not shutting this school down.”

A Coghill student who said she’d been at the Gentilly Woods elementary for nine years also asked board members to keep it open. “Coghill taught me to be the better person that I am today. I want to graduate from Coghill.”

Students from Mary D. Coghill Charter School hold up signs supporting their current leadership before a board vote that could have overruled the superintendent’s recommendation not to renew the charter. The vote failed, and Coghill will be run by the district next school year. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

“Coghill needs stability,” another student said. “Y’all can’t just keep changing, changing, changing. Y’all can’t do that to Craig either.”

Some students cried at the podium, begging for the school to remain open under current leadership.

Following protests at the November OPSB meeting, when Lewis made his recommendations public, Brown said the board would take another look this month — its only opportunity to do so.

And the public showed up, including supporters of the schools and critics of frequent school closures and management changes in New Orleans. More than 240 people packed the West Bank headquarters’ board room on Thursday. Including State Rep. Joseph Bouie, who will begin a term as state senator next month. Bouie is a longtime critic of New Orleans’ charter-based system. 

“Only in New Orleans do we run schools like this,” Bouie said during public comment. “It has to stop.”

The public was impatient through much of the meeting, interrupting the superintendent’s report when Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson transitioned from speaking about Craig to Coghill. Community members wanted the opportunity to speak but were told to wait until the rejection motions were up for a vote. 

Supporters of Craig and Coghill said they were blindsided by Peterson’s 30-page presentation, breaking down academic history and non-compliance issues at both schools. Some Craig supporters also complained that it included information from a December review, which they argued shouldn’t be relevant since Lewis made his recommendation in November.

Coghill Head of School Rayven Calloway said the school was making a turnaround and needed more time to fully implement new curriculum. The school earned its first F last year after two D ratings and three C ratings.

“Had NOLA Public Schools stepped in when we received a D, we might not be here,” she said. “We have never been given an improvement plan.”

Instead, Calloway said she created one herself. The school has hired six enrichment teachers, more teachers to assist Spanish-speaking students and additional special education teachers. 

Along with its F letter grade, Coghill has recently received repeated warning letters from the district for allegedly failing to follow policy or law on items like special education and financial management. But Coghill staff and board members said those problems have been resolved. 

Asked by The Lens for an update on which notices of non-compliance were outstanding, district officials did not immediately respond. 

Coghill, which has about 540 students, is Better Choice Foundation’s only school. The group’s board chair Audrey Woods asked OPSB members to keep the school under the community-run board and specifically addressed board member Ethan Ashley.

“Mr. Ashley, you’ve never come to any of our meetings,” she said. “You don’t know the pulse of the community.”

Craig’s board attorney Tracie Washington was one of the first to speak on behalf of Craig and thanked Brown for allowing the public to comment.

“There was no mechanism in place, none, for parent comment, public comment,” she said regarding the superintendent’s recommendations at the November meeting. 

The process of opening and closing schools has largely become a behind-the-scenes decision, typically made by district administrators without board input. Closure recommendations by Lewis are presented at meetings as information items. Unless the board moves to overrule Lewis, as it did Thursday, the closures move ahead without a board vote and without public comment. 

Washington continued, criticizing the board’s presentation. 

“What we did not anticipate is you were going to give [Lewis’ staff] a mulligan, and a mulligan to provide you all inaccurate information,” Washington said of Peterson’s presentation.

After hearing from several Coghill parents, staff and students, Marshall made a case for the school.

“I believe that this school is close enough that with our support they can and will succeed,” Marshall said.

After the votes failed, the room cleared out while the board was in executive session. And the board adjourned its final meeting of the year to a quiet nearly empty room.

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...