An Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge granted the Dryades YMCA, which runs James M. Singleton Charter School, a restraining order against the Orleans Parish School Board at a Thursday hearing and ordered the two sides to attend mediation following the New Orleans school district’s recent announcement that it would seek to close the school this summer.
“My big concern is yanking kids in and out and the parents at home with them receiving this news — the panic that creates trickles down to the children,” Judge Jennifer Medley said in her ruling from the bench.
The nearly nine-hour proceeding frequently drifted into areas beyond Dryades’ legal request for a preliminary injunction — to prevent the district from contacting students and staff before a revocation becomes final — and, at times, turned into a character trial of the administrators and board running the Central City school.
Last week, district officials announced they were initiating revocation proceedings against the school and would seek to cancel the school’s charter as early as July 29, effectively closing it before the upcoming school year. The news comes after a year of warnings for various financial and operational problems, including an investigation into background checks that resulted in the arrest of the former CFO Catrina Reed. Reed is accused of fabricating background checks and pocketing about $400 meant in fees meant to pay for them.
The announcement caught families, teachers and the Dryades YMCA board off guard with just roughly five weeks to go until the start of a new school year. In its announcement at a special board meeting on June 30, NOLA Public Schools district officials said they would contact Singleton students and reassign them to new schools and attempt to help connect teachers to new jobs. Under oath Thursday, district officials said neither of those things had happened, but lawyers for the Dryades YMCA said the damage had already been done by publicly announcing them.
Representing OPSB, attorney Rebecca Sha* twice attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out on procedural grounds, arguing that the school had no cause of action against the district.
“It’s all extremely premature. There’s no harm here whatsoever,” Sha argued, insisting the announcement of revocation proceedings did not mean the school’s closure was a done deal.
‘It was construed as a foregone conclusion’
Arguing for the Dryades YMCA, Charline Gipson said the district’s “actions that have been taken already are a far cry beyond the initiation process.”
Gipson cited a board presentation that said students would be reassigned to other schools and that the district had asked other schools to consider hiring Singleton teachers if the school closed.
“In a practical matter — if the coin falls the other way, how is Dryades going to be prepared if their teachers have been solicited away?” she asked.
Medley denied OPSB’s two attempts to have the lawsuit dropped, “I think they are very timely and detrimental to all parties involved.”
Over the next several hours, Dryades lawyers called Dryades interim CEO Samuel Odom to testify and the district called two employees, including Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.
On June 28, Lewis sent a letter to Dryades officials informing them of the initiation of revocation proceedings. At a special meeting June 30, district officials provided additional information about the process to board members. Lewis said the June 30 meeting was called to hire new board counsel and that the Singleton information item was added at board president Ethan Ashley’s request.
Odom attended the meeting and said the revocation felt like the matter was final.
“The meeting was not construed as a posture, it was construed as a foregone conclusion,” Odom said. “I was left with the impression that what was presented would be executed in the next 24-48 hours.”
In its lawsuit, the school asked that the district be prevented from contacting students, families and teachers until the revocation is finalized. That could happen as early as July 29 and as late as the OPSB meeting in August because the board has one month to override Lewis’ recommendation. Odom said abrupt change would be disruptive to students. He also said the school wanted to work with the district on alternative solutions but that officials had not responded to his request.
After a lunch break, Sha again tried to have the case dismissed. “There is no revocation. It’s not final. We don’t know what the board will do.”
Medley again denied the request, referencing the district’s presentation from the June 30 special meeting and a press release issued later that day.
“The item that was on the website said children ‘will’ be reassigned and when you say that that means something has been done,” Medley said, allowing the hearing to continue.
A district press release sent June 30 stated “All students attending the school will have guaranteed spots at First Line Live Oak Academy once the revocation process is complete.”
But Lewis and district Director of School Accountability Paige Jackson both testified that the district had not yet contacted students or families and was merely planning should the revocation proceed.
Medley also questioned the district’s timing for initiating the revocation process, noting that the background check problem and financial issues appear to date back months if not years.
“It looks like NOLA-PS didn’t return until March 4 — that’s five to six months later,” Medley said. “Should the background checks issue be allowed to linger?”
Jackson said the district was working in good faith with the school while it experienced delays in the state’s background check system, in part due to the pandemic.
“When was the concern? When was the smoke? When was the red flag to decide to revoke a charter?” Medley asked.
“That question would not be for me,” Jackson said.
Medley then asked Jackson if the timing was enough.
“Ideal? No. Sufficient? Yes,” Jackson said. “In a perfect world this would have happened at a different time.”
Superintendent says issues at school are ‘very concerning’
Lewis took the stand for nearly two hours of testimony, beginning by stating his financial and organizational concerns with the Dryades YMCA. The district has alleged that Dryades owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school.
“The non-compliances around the finances and background checks were very concerning,” he said, later noting those were the problems that ultimately led him to start the revocation process.
Lewis also said the school has recently failed to follow state Open Meetings laws by failing to post board agendas and minutes on its website. He also said a temporary restraining order granted last week has prevented the district from communicating with Singleton families.
“These are not new emergencies,” Charles Zimmer, another Dryades attorney, argued in his closing. “They have the power to shut down the school immediately if there is a danger to children.”
“As to mediation, I think we have to be careful with our language, especially when it deals with young people,” Medley said, referring to the school’s charter contract. “The language says ‘shall’ — I’m going to order mediation.”
Mediation will address the disputes Dryades and the district have with the laundry list of non-compliance notices issued since 2018.
“I don’t see any harm that would be caused by working this out over the next few months,” she said. “I’m going to order that the mediation happen next week.”
The district is up against a July 14 deadline to inform families of the revocation proceedings. Medley encouraged the district to extend that deadline to be able to work with Dryades in mediation.
After her ruling, granting most parts of Dryades’ request, Odom said he was happy with the outcome.
“We’re happy the opportunity has been afforded to us to come together in mediation and work through the issues,” Odom said.
District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district would continue working to support students.
While exiting the courthouse shortly before 7 p.m., handful of Singleton teachers said they felt “reprieve,” knowing they had jobs for at least a little bit longer.
Lewis’ recommendation will go before the board’s accountability committee on July 27 and the full board on July 29. Dryades officials will have the opportunity to present publicly at both meetings.
Correction: This article was updated after publication to correct the spelling of attorney Rebecca Sha’s name.