Last month, the Orleans Parish School Board appeared to have fallen one vote shy of overriding NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr.’s recommendation that the nonprofit group that runs Mary D. Coghill Charter School lose its charter. Such a vote requires a two-thirds majority of the seven member board, or five votes. The vote for the override came in at 4-2. 

But the Better Choice Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the school, is contending that the Orleans Parish School Board did, in fact, meet that threshold, according to a statement released Monday. Since one board member, Sarah Usdin, was absent for the December vote, two-thirds of the members who were present voted against Lewis, the statement said. 

That contradicts Orleans Parish School Board attorney Sharonda Williams, who after the board’s somewhat confusing vote on a motion to reject Lewis’ recommendations in December, clarified for the packed boardroom: “The motion fails with that vote.” The Better Choice Foundation’s position also appears to contradict state law, which requires a two-thirds vote of a “full membership of the board.”  The the district’s charter policy likewise specifies a rejection can only occur “by a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the School Board.”

Williams, who contracts for the School Board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. The NOLA Public Schools district did not immediately respond either.

Alternatively, Coghill’s charter group, Better Choice Foundation, asks that Lewis withdraw his recommendation not to renew the Gentilly Woods charter school. The group sent a demand letter to Lewis and the school board, according to communications professional Virginia Miller. Miller said she is working on behalf of the school’s law firm, McGlinchey Stafford.

Miller said via email she could not provide the demand letter. But her statement says that the letter demands “that Dr. Lewis withdraw his recommendation to not renew the Coghill charter or, in the alternative, to demand the Orleans Parish School Board recognize the validity of its majority vote in favor of Coghill, in accordance with applicable laws.”

“The Board of Mary D. Coghill is aggressively defending its right to maintain this charter,” the statement continued. 

In New Orleans, the superintendent decides whether charter schools contracts are renewed or if the groups lose their contracts, which could cause them to close or be taken over by another charter group. Lewis’ administrators recommended that 540-student Coghill not be renewed in November. Under district policy, the seven-member school board has one month to reject his recommendation with a two-thirds vote. 

After an intense November meeting, where the recommendation for Coghill to lose its charter was announced, Orleans Parish School Board President John Brown Sr. told the public he would put the rejection vote on December’s agenda so the board could hear public comment. 

And the public showed up, including supporters of the schools and critics of frequent school closures and management changes in New Orleans.

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 in December, the closures move ahead without a board vote and without public comment. 

Lewis announced that the district plans to run Coghill directly for the 2020-2021 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 district has posted several job openings for the transition. 

Coghill supporters argue the school is truly a community-run school with several neighborhood members on the board. After several noncompliance issues over the past year the school hired a new leader last fall. At the December meeting, 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 in state ratings, after two D ratings and three C ratings.

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...