The NOLA Public Schools district initiated revocation proceedings against the Dryades YMCA, the nonprofit running James M. Singleton Charter School, at an emergency board meeting on Wednesday, after issuing increasingly serious warnings to the organization in recent years over financial, academic, and organizational concerns.
If the roughly two-month process goes according to the district’s plan, it will effectively close the Central City school this summer and send the roughly 400 Singleton students to different schools when the next school year starts in August. (District officials said the closure will not affect Head Start or pre-kindergarten students because those programs operate outside the K-8 district charter.)
At the Wednesday meeting, district Chief Accountability Officer Thomas Lambert told Orleans Parish School Board members about the process and said the superintendent informed the Dryades YMCA earlier this week. The school originally opened as a Recovery School District charter but transferred to OPSB oversight in July of 2018. Since then, the school has received 13 notices of non-compliance, Lambert said, including eight so-called “level two” notices, the most serious warning issued by the district.
“Of these 13 notices, seven have been in the last school year,” Lambert said to board members. “These concerns are academic, including special education non-compliance, as well as … financial and organizational non-compliance.”
“The Y operates one of the lowest performing schools in the state. It is among all elementary and middle schools in the state ranked in the bottom 10,” Lambert said. “In the last three years, every school that has been closed or transformed has had a better school performance score than the school operated by the Y.”
Lambert also flagged several financial concerns, problematic background checks and state Open Meetings Law violations.
“Families will hear from us this week as we select the new school they’re assigned,” Lambert said.
If they don’t like their new placement, families can reapply through the district’s summer enrollment process and will receive “priority access” for any remaining open seats. This is different from the typical first-come first-serve approach to summer enrollment.
The revocation, however, will not be official until Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. presents his recommendation to the full board at its July 29 meeting. Then, the board has until August to override his recommendation with a vote of a two-thirds majority of the full board.
The move comes after years of warning letters, Lambert explained, and follows a recent investigation into suspicious background checks that led the CEO and CFO to resign earlier this spring. The former CFO, Catrina Reed, was arrested June 1 for allegedly falsifying employee background checks.
The district has also challenged the status of the interim CEO, who resigned his board seat to step into the lead role. Interim CEO Samuel Odom has argued he can hold the role as a volunteer and said he’s awaiting an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter.
Last week, the district also claimed the organization’s audit shows the school is owed more than $1 million from its parent organization and ‘other programs.’ Dryades officials dispute that claim, arguing a nonprofit can’t owe itself money. They’ve hired a financial services group to analyze their books. That report is due this week.
In a letter Monday, Odom asked NOLA Public Schools officials to enter into dispute resolution with a mediator, as is outlined in the charter contract. Lambert’s presentation to board members Wednesday did not acknowledge Odom’s request.
Three Dryades YMCA representatives, including Odom, asked to speak at Wednesday’s emergency meeting. But because Lambert’s report was an update and not an action item, public comment was not mandated and board president Ethan Ashley declined to offer the opportunity.
The Central City charter school was most recently rated an F by the state in 2019. There were no ratings in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2019, with a score of 35.3 on a 150-point scale, it had the lowest performance score of any city school, including four schools that have since been closed at least in part for academic reasons.
“It has been one of the lowest performing schools in the state,” Lambert said.
Lambert said parents will be informed by July 14 at the latest and Lewis will present the revocation recommendation to the full board on July 29.
He also said schools that have offered to open up seats to accommodate Singleton students would help parents get new uniforms and other school supplies over the unusually short window of a summer closure.
Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. insisted the district be clear with parents that the revocation would not be considered final until August when the board could vote to override the superintendent. But he also suggested that an override was unlikely.
“I don’t want to insinuate that sentiment,” Marshall said of a possible override, but he directed district leadership to be transparent with parents about the process.
Board member J.C. Romero asked that additional resources, such as translation services, be made available to Spanish-speaking families to ensure they knew about summer enrollment options.