Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

A state legislator who has a history of criticizing the way New Orleans schools are governed is pushing a bill in the upcoming session that would strip NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. of his power to close or renew charter schools without an Orleans Parish School Board vote.

State Senator Joseph Bouie Jr. spoke briefly with board members during their meeting Tuesday about the bill, which he has prefiled for the 2021 legislative session beginning next month. Bouie’s bill aims to undo the charter school renewal system established by a state law passed in 2016 that brought the city’s charter schools — most of which had been overseen by the state-run Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina — back under local control. 

That law, Act 91, gives near unilateral power to the superintendent to decide which nonprofit-run charter schools up for contract renewal with the district will remain open and which ones will close. Under the current system, the board can only overturn Lewis’ recommendation with a two-thirds supermajority vote within one month of a recommendation’s presentation. 

Bouie’s proposal would require board votes on all charter renewals.

Bouie has criticized the city’s charter-based system, and specifically the superintendent’s unique power. He has sometimes called the city’s system of schools an “experiment” — which, he has noted, is how the original 1995 law authorizing charter schools in Louisiana refers to them — and often argues it has disproportionately affected Black students. 

“It’s a bill designed to restore your governance and authority regarding how you vote regarding certain superintendent recommendations,” Bouie said of his new bill. “My rationale was to separate out what is a governance authority of the elected school board from what Act 91 provided.”

Board finances

The board also discussed its annual financial audit on Tuesday. One of the district’s auditors said it will be an additional month until the district’s annual financial audit is complete. The audit was due Dec. 31, but the board received an extension from the state. 

In other financial matters, Chief Financial Officer Stuart Gay informed board members the district had accidentally given out some special per pupil funding from its “systemwide needs funds” last year, year early. Officials say they’ve been meeting with schools on the matter.

“We should have funded that $100 (per pupil) this year. We made it a year too early,” he said.

The mistake will mean the schools won’t get the disbursement this year. The board must hold back the funds this year, to disburse next school year. What’s more, due to declining sales tax revenues related to the pandemic, next year’s disbursement will likely only be about $60 per student next year, rather than $100 or more — the amount is equally divided from the sales tax revenue left over in the systemwide-needs fund. Board members were curious how this would be reflected in the books.

“Are we clawing that back from our schools?” board member Katie Baudouin asked.

Gay said it would be recorded that way, as a receivable this year, but that the district was not taking money back from schools “from a cash standpoint.”

High School Transcript Reviews

Chief School Accountability Officer Kevin George told members that his team has reviewed nearly 700 high school senior student records in its annual audit, a review started in the fall of 2020 after the 2019 graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School

District staff reviewed credit accumulation, state required individual graduation plans, state exams and whether students’ school level transcript matched data in the state transcript system. 

Of 680 senior student files reviewed, district staff found 657 students, or 97 percent, would graduate on time if they pass all their current classes. However, 28 students need more than 2 units of credit recovery — a makeup course a student can take for credit after failing the traditional course. A two-credit cap was put into place by the state last year, George said, though it does allow for some exceptions.

District staff found 23 percent of students’ transcripts kept at their school did not match what is currently in the state’s system. This can become a big problem for any student who transfers schools and was an issue at Kennedy in 2019. 

Board member Olin Parker said he was concerned by that figure and asked how the district was holding schools accountable for updates.

“So at the local level it’s documented in there but hasn’t been updated in the state system,” George said. “Oftentimes we see some schools won’t upload in the fall and do everything in the spring but we want them to do it at each point in the year.”

George said it continues to be a focal point this year.

“I know in the past, I think a school would wait until students were in their senior year to enter credits,” Parker said. “Which was a real problem for students with a high mobility rate. That is something that can really impact a student’s career and I’ve heard of students who’d rather drop out than take a course again for something that was an adult’s mistake.” 

Part of the district’s audit includes a review of individual graduation plans. The state required documents outline a student’s course path to graduation and must be signed by the student, a parent or legal guardian and school counselor. A lack of the plans and signatures was an issue at Kennedy.

George said the Louisiana Department of Education encourages students to begin the plan in eighth grade as they make high school course selections. 

“One thing we are focusing in on is a lot of schools were just focused on the signatures — so our focus has been what are you doing to inform parents what is on the paper and understanding what is involved in your child’s graduation,” he explained. “Signatures? Great. But what’s behind that piece of paper. We want to ensure that parents know what their child’s IGP is, what do they need, what courses are available to them.”

George said district staff would complete its work by the end of March.

Member Katie Boudouin asked for a year over year comparison and George said he would present one at the April meeting.

Board members also heard an update on the district’s process to rename school buildings.

Last year, the district passed a new policy that explicitly condemned Confederate ties, adding the language that the board is “fundamentally opposed to retaining names of school facilities named for persons who were slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.”

Nineteen schools, including all McDonogh campuses, Ben Franklin elementary and high schools, and Lusher, were identified as being named after someone who fit into one of those categories. The list could expand with further review from the historian review team. An initial public meeting will be held March 30 and public comment is accepted through April 19. A second public meeting will be held April 27. The district will also hold student-only feedback sessions.

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...