Mary D. Coghill Charter School supporters packed a November 2019 Orleans Parish School Board meeting where NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. recommended the charter school not receive a renewed contract. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The charter group that runs Mary D. Coghill Charter School has sued the Orleans Parish School Board, its members and the district’s superintendent, alleging Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is acting against the will of the board in moving forward with ending the group’s charter — rather than renewing it — after an Orleans Parish School Board vote the group claims should have kept it operating.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Monday, argues the groups due process rights were violated and asks the court to enjoin Lewis and the board from taking Coghill away from its nonprofit governing group, the Better Choice Foundation. It also seeks damages and attorneys’ fees. 

The suit follows Lewis’ recommendation, last fall, against renewing the charter with the Better Choice Foundation, the nonprofit group that runs the school. In December, OPSB considered a motion to overrule that recommendation, which requires a two-thirds vote, or five members of the seven member board. Only four OPSB members voted in favor of the proposal. 

But the group argues that because one board member was absent, the 4-2 vote that occured that night met the two-thirds required to overturn Lewis’s recommendation. 

“We believe Superintendent Lewis has disregarded the will and authority of the OPSB and is acting contradictory to the vote of the School Board,” Head of School Rayven Calloway said, according to a statement sent by Virginia Miller. Miller’s public relations firm has been retained by Coghill’s lawyers. 

“Superintendent Lewis has disregarded the will and authority of the OPSB and is acting contradictory to the vote of the OPSB,” the lawsuit reads. “Alternatively, the OPSB has improperly delegated the authority to decide whether to renew Coghill’s Charter Contract to Superintendent Lewis.”

The board’s confusing December vote followed Lewis’ November announcement that he would not renew the charter due to its F rating from the state and other operational issues, including special education concerns and financial questions. After public outcry at the November OPSB meeting, then-board president John Brown Sr. promised to place the motion to overturn Lewis’ recommendation on December’s agenda, that would allow members of the public to comment on the proposal. 

The group argues state law gives “OPSB has the sole authority and duty concerning whether charter contracts should be renewed.” 

But a state law governing much of NOLA Public Schools, known as Act 91, gives the superintendent the authority to decide whether or not to renew a charter. In this case, the board can override him, but only with a two-thirds vote of OPSB’s full membership — not just those members present for a meeting — which must be held at the first meeting after his recommendations are presented. 

The lawsuit acknowledges Act 91, but roots its argument in the number of board members who were present the night the board voted on overturning Lewis’ recommendation. 

“The suit is fairly self explanatory, but we intend to demonstrate the Superintendent has exceeded the limits of his power, and his office has repeatedly failed to give Mary D. Coghill the due process written into both the law and the Superintendent’s own accountability framework,” Better Choice Foundation Board President Audrey Woods wrote in an email.

Lewis plans for the district to take over the Gentilly Woods school directly, after no eligible charter groups sought take it on. He announced its new principal, Ismail El-Shaakir, who has run other schools for the district in recent years as its direct-run school count has dwindled. The district reached zero direct-run schools this year, becoming the first major city in the country without any traditional schools. 

Neither NOLA Public Schools district officials nor Orleans Parish School Board President Ethan Ashley responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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...