Orleans Parish School Board President John Brown Sr. speaks with Mary D. Coghill Charter School supporters after a vote to keep the school under current leadership failed in 2019. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish School Board unanimously approved a resolution expressing support for a suggested revision of a local lawmaker’s bill that would remove NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s unique power — given to him in state law — to close or renew charter schools without a board vote.

However, the language of the bill as written, plus a suggested amendment from OPSB members, could mean that nothing will change in the process even if it passes the legislature and is signed into law.

Under current law, when a charter school’s multi-year contract with the district is up for renewal, the superintendent recommends whether to renew it or close the school. If the board opts to take no action, those recommendations move forward without a vote. If the board opens a vote to reject the recommendations, two-thirds of members must vote against the superintendent to override him.

In 2019, after public outcry over Lewis’ recommendation not to renew the contract with Mary D. Coghill Charter School’s operator, the Better Choice Foundation, the board took an override vote. Four out of six members present at the meeting voted against Lewis, but the vote failed because the law requires two-thirds of all seven board members — not just those present at a meeting — to agree.

Sen. Joseph Bouie’s bill, which he has prefiled for the upcoming state legislative session, removes the two-thirds threshold and provides that the board “shall vote on the local superintendent’s recommendations.” 

However, the bill also says that any OPSB vote should be taken under the board’s internal policies. Along with being in the law, the two-thirds threshold is also part of the board’s policy. So the proposed change essentially leaves the decision on removing the supermajority requirement up to the board.

Bouie gave a presentation to OPSB members on the bill at a committee meeting earlier this week. At its Thursday night monthly meeting, the board added a resolution to the agenda supporting the bill.

But board members also voted to include a suggested amendment to the bill. The change removes language requiring the board to vote on each charter renewal  recommendation. 

If the bill passes with the amendment and the board doesn’t remove the supermajority vote threshold in its policy, nothing would change. The superintendent would still be allowed to move forward with charter renewals or closures without a board vote. And a two-thirds vote would still be necessary to override his recommendations. 

But newly elected board member Carlos Zervigon said that, even with the proposed amendment, the bill would take OPSB policymaking power away from the legislature and give it to board members. 

“What this does is remove certain policy language from state statute and in doing so it then puts the OPSB policy in the driver’s seat,” he said. 

“If we approve this resolution it doesn’t immediately trigger a change in OPSB policy or practices, but what it does do is it gives this elected board the power to change that policy if it seems necessary or best in some future time,” he said. “It restores this board’s authority to set its own policy.”

Bouie, who has consistently argued for local control of schools, said he agreed with the board’s proposed amendment.

“Not only do I support the change but I actually am delighted by the change because it is a reflection of what you, the board, desire specifically as it relates to … your decision-making,” Bouie said.

At a committee meeting earlier this week, board member Katie Baudouin asked Bouie about any potential amendments to the bill.

“I can assure you and commit to the fact that your amendment, via the resolution, will be the only one that is introduced regarding a change in the bill and that no other one will be entertained by me as the author,” he said Thursday night.

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...