Parents with Our Voice Nuestra Voz pictured in July 2020 at a protest against NOLA Public Schools’ COVID reopening plans. The group is now pushing the school district to enhance protections meant to stop charter school administrators retaliating against parents for advocating for their kids. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

NOLA Public Schools officials recently prepared a host of changes to the district’s standard charter contract — including new requirements for reporting suspected child abuse, expanded special education reporting requirements and protections for parents against retaliation. But after pushback from charter school leaders, the district ultimately declined to present the proposal to the Orleans Parish School Board for consideration and approval. 

The changes, outlined in a draft contract proposal, may still go forward, though in a different form over a longer timeframe. Rather than changing charter school operating contracts, officials are now considering asking OPSB members to approve the proposals in the districtwide policy book.

Charter school leaders who spoke to The Lens said they were not opposed to the substance of the proposals but rather the process the district was using to push them through. Some said the district’s plan to present and adopt the changes in a six-week window — between mid-April and May 20 — was too fast. Other members of the education community, such as parents and the general public, never saw the draft. Had it been approved, the new contracts would have gone into effect July 1 for about 20 schools — schools whose contracts are being renewed and new charter schools. The list includes several charter schools that are poised to sign 10-year operating agreements — the longest-term contract the district offers — typically available only to high-performing schools.

“The administration determined that the contract adjustments that were identified were not substantial enough, in and of themselves, to warrant adoption of a new template.  Rather, in lieu of changes to the template, the administration intends to engage with schools on policy solutions for the system-wide issues that are of concern,” wrote district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo in an email to The Lens.

NOLA Public Schools regulates semi-autonomous charter schools — nearly every public school in the city — through state and federal law and board policy. All schools must follow the law, but many board policies don’t apply to charter schools unless they are outlined in their charter agreements. Enacting the recent proposals through board policy change alone requires them to be written into a section of the policy book that deals specifically with charter schools.  

Taylor Castillo, program director for Our Voice Nuestra Voz, an advocacy group that works to promote equitable education and seeks to act as a voice for parents, said he applauds the changes outlined in the scrapped contract overhaul, particularly the provision about retaliation. 

In February, OVNV asked for protections for parents who fear retaliation from school administrators after complaining about school policies or how teachers or administrators were treating their children.

If policy is the district’s prefered route, Castillo said that’s fine, but it must happen quickly. 

“They need to do it ASAP. Every moment they wait they are continuing to disadvantage parents,” he said. “We’re not going to get a truly equitable system until parents are equal stakeholders, at the table, and able to speak up.”

‘Very short notice’

Some charter leaders told The Lens that the district’s six-week timeline to adopt the suggested changes, which would go into effect for renewed charter schools starting July 1, was too quick. The week the changes were presented in mid-April, Morris Jeff Community School CEO Patricia Perkins told The Lens that was her main concern. 

“Right now, our concerns are around the process and the timeframe for incorporating revisions,” she wrote in an email. 

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely also said he thought the district was moving too fast.

Orleans Parish School Board members Katie Baudioun and Olin Parker both said the process for contract changes must be clearly outlined. 

“Moving forward, I think the administration, the board, and charter board leaders all have a desire to formalize the process for making changes to the contract,” Parker wrote in an email last month.

Orleans Parish School Board member J.C. Wagner Romero, a former charter school administrator, agreed. He also said he personally met with charter administrators in mid-April after the proposed changes were presented to them. 

“It is evident to me that there seems to be some kind of disconnect with the people that are in the trenches every single day: network and school leaders,” he wrote in an email. “This was evident in the how the operating agreements were handled, as school leaders were given very short notice about proposed changes made to the charter contracts—many unable to review the documents with their attorneys or board chairs, much less internalize the language themselves.”

“I want to be clear that not one leader that met with me expressed that they did not want to see positive changes in charter operating agreements,” he wrote. “There was certainly pushback prior to the last board meeting about the lack of time that CMO leaders had to review the new language which I believe caused the Superintendent to decide to keep the operating agreement language the same as it has been for years.”

Abuse reporting

Many of the proposed changes appear to seek to create more uniform reporting systems for the district, which as of now has only one traditional, direct-operated school that is poised to transfer to a charter operator this summer. Others proposed changes required greater transparency and some were simple policy and language updates.

Centralized reporting of suspected child abuse and health and/or safety threats on campus would add another layer of connection between the district and its schools. Currently, there is no requirement for the independent charters to report those issues to the district, though they are required to report suspected child abuse to the police and state departments. 

District administrators justified this change so the district could “identify any trends in the system.”

Recently, NOLA Public Schools cited James M. Singleton Charter School for employing someone who was ineligible to work in education due to their criminal record. The review of Singleton employee background checks began in December. But this spring, the district discovered KIPP New Orleans employed the same person, perhaps something the district could have discovered earlier if it tracked such things.

The draft proposal would have changed the standard contract NOLA Public Schools developed in 2017 and would have affected the 17 schools that have received approval to renew their contract this summer, according to a district presentation. 

“The District believes policy is a better path forward for these critical issues, as well, given that contract changes now would only impact a small subset of schools receiving new or renewal contracts this year, versus policy that would apply to all schools, ensuring equity in expectations,” district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote.

Parent protections needed ‘ASAP’

One of the proposed changes would add protection for parents against retaliation by charter schools by clarifying the definition of “retaliation.” As of now, charter contracts prohibit retaliation against employees, students and parents who report unfair treatment or violations of law or policy. But they do not define retaliation. The proposed language would define “retaliate” as an attempt to “intimidate, threaten, coerce or take adverse action against” parents, teachers or students. 

In February 2021, Our Voice Nuestra Voz presented a request for such protections to be written into district policy. Parents described being ignored or seeing their children being written up more often for minor or “frivolous” disciplinary infractions after complaining or requesting services for their children. One parent said school administrators threatened to report her to immigration authorities after she asked for bus services for her kids. 

“Parents have experienced retaliation in all sorts of different forms. A big key for us is that retaliation isn’t just a parent has spoken up and the school reacts. But it’s also silencing parents, ignoring emails, intimidating them, things like that,” Castillo, of Our Voice Nuestra Voz, told The Lens. “This fear of retaliation in particular is really withholding their rights as parents. We know they have the right to engage with schools and organize around issues.”

Castillo said he was fine with enacting the proposal through board policy rather than contract rewrites, but he wants to see it happen soon. And he worries that politics could drag the process out. 

“Honestly it’s disappointing to see that these protections were going to be written into these contracts and now are not going to be. You’re saying the district might want to do something but there might be some politics behind the process or behind the scenes,” he said. He added that, ideally, the proposed language would be included in both board policy and charter contracts. 

“I think policy is something we’ve been asking for around parent retaliation but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. That is true accountability,” he said in an interview. “That it would be written into the contract — that is very cut and dry.”

Castillo reviewed the document obtained by The Lens. He said a number of the other changes would be positive and increase transparency and knowledge for parents and students.

“It goes beyond that, it’s protections for kids. There was stuff for special ed there, the politics are getting in the way of these things we know protect children, protect parents, enable greeter educational outcomes. Which is really, we know, the whole goal behind all of this,” he said.

New contracts or policies

OPSB members Katie Baudouin and J.C. Wagner Romero thought the process for making such changes could be improved in the future. 

“I think kind of the issue here for me is a communications one. I think we as a board have to come up with a process and policy so these kinds of changes go through all stakeholders,” she said.

Romero shared that sentiment and also noted that this year would have been a good time to review the contracts of high-performing Benjamin Franklin High School, Lake Forest and Lusher Charter School. The A-rated schools each earned new 10-year contracts, set to start July 1, after coming off 10-year contracts.

“This is frustrating on so many levels for me because we are constantly talking about being a district that is ready to tackle issues of equity in all that we do,” he wrote. “Some of the contracts that are going to be renewed are very long-term (i.e. 10 years), and there’s no possible way that the same old language from years ago applies today, or will apply 10 years from now, as it relates to issues of equity, community and family engagement, and the operationalization of schools within the district using a culturally sustaining lens.”

Romero wrote that he thinks this would have been the perfect time to create “an updated equity-focused” contract.

“I know that board members, the school system, and network leaders want to find ways to collaborate with one another, and I believe that this could have been the perfect opportunity to not only engage with school and network leaders prior to changing language to operating agreements (and then taking it back), but to also have those same leaders reflect with their communities about the future of schooling in New Orleans,” he wrote. 

Baudouin had similar priorities.

“The interested parties are the district and CMOs and us. So I think it’s important that we have the opportunity to make changes to these contracts as they are necessary or as board priorities change or evolve or as state law changes, which can happen,” she said. “But what we need is a process that is clearly laid out.”

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...