The NOLA Public Schools district is hiring staff in preparation to take over Mary D. Coghill Charter School from its governing charter group — the Better Choice Foundation — on July 1, but the charter group’s leader said the district takeover is not a foregone conclusion. 

The Better Choice Foundation is locked in a time-sensitive legal battle over its ability to operate the school.  

The nonprofit group’s charter contract expires on June 30. District Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. opted not to renew it due the charter’s academic performance — Coghill has been rated an ‘F’ school by the state — and several official warnings alleging that the school violated laws or district policies, including warnings over its special education services and financial management. 

But in February, the charter group sued the district in federal court, claiming that Henderson went against the will of the Orleans Parish School Board when he moved to take over the school. 

The lawsuit cites an attempt by the board to overrule Lewis’ recommendation that Coghill’s charter not be removed during a packed and passionate December meeting. The Better Choice Foundation claims there were enough board votes on that motion to nullify Lewis’ recommendation. But the Orleans Parish School Board’s lawyer has said the vote was unsuccessful

To overturn the superintendent, state law and board policy require a two-thirds vote of the full board membership. The December vote was 4-2 — with one board member absent for the meeting — which the nonprofit argues meets that standard. But the law says such a vote requires a two-thirds vote of OPSB’s “full membership,” which means it would have required five of the board’s seven members, OPSB attorney Sharonda Williams has responded.

If the court finds that the vote was successful, it’s unclear what the remedy would be because the case will not go to trial for several more months, well after the takeover date. It’s possible that Lewis would be forced to offer the Better Choice Foundation another charter. 

It appears the case slowed considerably because of partial court closures — including delays of all jury trials — during the COVID-19 outbreak. But jury trials are set to resume in federal court at the beginning of August. And a two-day jury trial in the Coghill suit is scheduled for September — well after turnover is slated to occur and in a month into the new school year. 

Asked about plans for reopening Coghill — whether it will have in-person classes or conduct them remotely — the district issued the following statement: “Plans for Coghill are currently in development for distance learning and various scenarios of instruction.”

Asked about turning over the school, Coghill CEO Rayven Calloway said in a written statement that Lewis “has exceeded the limits of his powers” in attempting to take the school over. (Read Calloway’s full statement.) 

“That the district is proceeding as though a turnover is a forgone conclusion is an abomination for students, parents and any New Orleanian who cares about education in New Orleans,” Calloway wrote. “The School board voted in favor of Coghill based on our hard work and determination, as well as the superb fiscal management of the school by its board, Better Choice Foundation.”

“We are waiting for the wheels of justice and not simply assuming that Superintendent Henderson will prevail,” Calloway wrote. “Our students, our parents and our transformational leaders and teachers deserve nothing less.”

Meanwhile, the district is hiring staffers for the school. At an OPSB committee meeting Tuesday, district Chief of Staff Dina Hasiotis announced it had hired 30 employees for Coghill, including 26 who had previously worked at the school. (The district provided a list of rehired employees.)

One of them is Donna Rompf, a longtime special education teacher, who said she has been offered a position along with many co-workers, who “have been there for years.” 

“Which is good because that offers stability for the kids,” she said.

Rompf said this is the seventh change in leadership in recent years. “Even though the leadership is changing, you’ll still have familiar staff.”

“I’ve had some of these kids when they were three-years-old and now they’re in seventh grade,” she said. 

NOLA Public Schools has hired Kevin George to serve as chief of district operated schools starting July 1. George is the CEO of New Beginnings Schools Foundation, a charter group in the process of shutting down after a graduation scandal last year at John F. Kennedy High School, under its previous CEO.

Coghill will be the district’s only direct-run school next school year, though the district also has a handful of “contract” schools, such as the Travis Hill School at the city’s juvenile jail. 

Asked about the position, George said he had no comment. 

The district has already approved a school calendar for Coghill and is working on a budget.

At the Tuesday committee meeting, staff told board members they would need about $445,000 from the district’s reserve funds to cover operations at the Gentilly Woods elementary next school year.

Using reserve funds for takeovers has become a bit of a sticking point for some board members. After a mid-year takeover of one charter school, another school missed out on $333,000 in federal funds because the money couldn’t be reassigned from the charter operator to the district in the middle of the year. The district had to use reserve funding to make up for it. That specific problem won’t happen with Coghill, because it’s not a mid-year takeover, but there are many financial considerations the district must take into account when opening a direct-run school. 

At the Tuesday meeting, board member Ben Kleban asked NOLA Public Schools district officials to explain why using the fund balance was necessary for Coghill. He also asked Lewis if legislation to fix the problem was being considered for when the district has to take over schools. 

Lewis said a solution was in the works.

“We have to work through legislation to actually be able to look at how we can make sure the person who will be receiving the school afterwards would actually have some money to be able to work with so that you’re not actually deficit spending.”

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...