NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

Orleans Parish School Board members met Tuesday to greenlight additional health and technology spending related to COVID-19 and advance policy changes that will give the public additional time to review meeting agendas before board meetings. 

Tuesday’s meeting came the same week the district’s older students continued to return to the classroom, after Gov. John Bel Edwards first shuttered schools on March 13. School began virtually in August and in September the district’s youngest students were allowed to return in-person. Beginning Oct. 12,middle and high school students were allowed to return for in-person classes at least two days a week. 

In each of the last two weeks the district has reported 12 active COVID-19 cases related to schools. People quarantining dropped from 156 to 146 last week. The district only confirms case information on Thursdays. 

The Tuesday afternoon committee meeting was held virtually and board members approved a number of items to be forwarded to the full board at its Thursday meeting. That included an additional $550,000 in technology spending from CARES Act funding to update computer hardware for state testing and equip more students for virtual learning.

Board members also recommended the board extend its contract with LSU Health Sciences Center, which has provided medical advice during the pandemic, to June 30, 2021. The initial contract expires at the end of October. Extending the contract will also come with an increase from $95,000 to $145,000.

The committee also advanced a $225,000 contract with Xavier University to help recruit 220 teaching candidates.The NOLA Public Schools district — OPSB’s administrative arm —  hopes the partnership with the historically Black university will help schools recruit “highly effective, culturally competent teachers from diverse backgrounds starting in 2020.” According to figures on the university’s website, nearly half of Xavier students are from Louisiana, most of whom are from the New Orleans area. 

The district has struggled with teacher turnover, and in August, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate also reported high principal turnover in the city. Between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, nearly 30 percent of city teachers didn’t return to their jobs. Various groups have collaborated on the effort to fill these jobs over the past several years.

Board members were optimistic about the program. 

“I think if we recruit more of our own they may have a tendency to stay. We may not lose so many teachers,” board member John Brown Sr. said. 

Chief Schools Accountability Officer Kevin George told board members his team is in the process of reviewing 18 schools up for charter renewal this winter. 

“This year we have 18. The most we’ve ever had in one year was 9,” he said. 

Five of those schools — Phillis Wheatley Community School, ReNEW SciTech Academy, Robert Russa Moton Charter School, ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary and Crocker College Prep — must also undergo a comprehensive evaluation because their state letter ratings are so low. Wheatley, SciTech and Moton each received a D in the 2018-19 school year while Schaumburg and Crocker received F’s. (The state waived school ratings for the 2019-2020 school year due to the pandemic.)

Renewal recommendations are usually made by NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. in November. 

Meeting notification time could increase

The board also forwarded a series of policy amendments aimed at making its meeting agendas easier to access prior to meetings. That included a proposed change that agendas be posted 48 hours in advance of a meeting, rather than the state-required 24 hours. Another policy adds a public comment period at the first reading of a new policy. Typically, the board only takes public comment on items up for vote. New policies and policy amendments are voted on at their second reading. 

An additional policy would notify school leaders of changes in proposed policy, should there be any between first and second readings.

The set of policy changes were introduced by board member Sarah Usdin. 

“I think these things will help increase our transparency and communication with our schools and with our families, and charter board chairs and charter board members,” she said. “I know it’s a lot of work the administration is about to do so I want to thank you and everyone on your team for that effort.”

In the past agendas had typically been released close to exactly 24 hours in advance, meaning regularly scheduled Thursday evening meeting agendas were typically released Wednesday as the 9-to-5 workday wrapped up. And Tuesday committee meeting agendas were released early Monday afternoons. 

“We’ve had nothing but positive feedback from folks letting them know they don’t have to teach and read policy at the same time in the middle of a Monday,” Usdin said smiling and a bit emphatically. “Instead they can do it over the weekend.”

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...