NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

After more than a year of virtual meetings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Orleans Parish School Board members on Tuesday held their first in-person committee meeting since  March 2020. They were met with a socially distanced — but filled to capacity — room of Alfred Lawless High School alumni. 

Boardroom seating for the public was limited to 23 spaced chairs. Many other people watched the meeting from an overflow area. Board members’ traditional podium style seating was separated into two stadium style rows with plexiglass barriers, as the city endures a fourth and rather alarming spike in COVID-19 cases. 

The Lawless alumni were there to advocate for the board to restore the school’s name to its Law Street* property — which was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School when the Friends of King charter group moved into the facility in 2015. (Shortly after that, the board banned the naming of buildings for charter schools.)

“Lawless is just not a building, it’s a fiber, it’s who we are,” said class of 1984 graduate Randolph Davis.

Rev. Brenda Square also supported the change, noting that Lawless, who served as principal of Fisk Colored School, was a strong advocate for the education for the city’s Black students in the early 20th Century. 

“Replacing Alfred Lawless with Martin Luther King would suggest we have no local leaders with stories worth recognition,” Square said. “His ministry was the foundation on which Martin Luther King himself was propelled forward. This history of Black education is rooted in the Lawless legacy.”

The proposal for the school building to return to its historic name comes as the board is separately working on removing longtime school names from dozens of other campuses. In those other cases, the schools were named after people who were Confederate sympathizers, owned slaves or supported school segregation. 

All speakers but one were supportive of the Lawless proposal, which would only rename the facility — not the charter school using it. That was Joseph Recasner, a King charter school employee, who suggested a compromise. 

“We are in total agreement that the name of Alfred Lawless should be on King high school,” he said. “It should be on there as the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School at Alfred Lawless.”

The board committee approved the name change, along with new names for five additional buildings.Bethune Elementary will be renamed for Enrique Alferez and the Stuart Bradley campus will be renamed Mary Mcleod Bethune, where the charter named for Bethune now resides. Lake Area High School will be renamed after John F. Kennedy, the school recently renamed itself after Kennedy and has been working with its alumni group. Village de l’Est will be renamed for Dominic Mai Thanh Luong and Arthur Ashe will be renamed for Vorice Jackson-Waters.

COVID-19 operations

Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour told board members on Tuesday that the NOLA Public Schools district will continue COVID-19 vaccine drives and testing as it prepares for the new school year. 

They are also watching the city’s case data closely, she said, noting the district had already re-imposed a mask requirement for all students, after first planning to only require masks for unvaccinated students and employees. The announcement came after New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell instituted an indoor mask “advisory” last week, strongly recommending masks in public places regardless of vaccination status. The CDC made similar recommendations this week. 

“As we know with COVID-19, the only thing we know is a given is change,” Delcour said. “We’ve added a new section to our guidance, ‘temporary operational procedures.’ ”

Delcour said the district is also working to develop a small financial incentive to encourage eligible students to get the vaccine. Details on that program weren’t immediately clear.

The district is partnering with the Louisiana Department of Health to bring weekly testing to any interested school for the upcoming school year.

“We will be participating in one of their largest weekly routine testing projects,” Delcour said.

Board members Katie Baudouin and Olin Parker offered a few suggestions.

“At some point we might need to start thinking about requiring vaccines, or requiring testing,” Baudouin said. “I’m glad we’re starting with incentives.”

Parker suggested the district make student testing the default — asking families to “opt-out” rather than an “opt-in” — to increase participation. 

Myrialis King, CEO of charter school operator Community Academies of New Orleans, attended the meeting and told members about a Monday vaccine drive. 

“The first four people I saw were people who said they would not get the vaccine in May.”

Board member J.C. Romero asked about virtual school as an option for students. District Chief of Staff Mary Garton* said it would be offered on a limited basis. 

“We want kids in school,” she said.

“Students and families have always had the option in acute or specific medical situations for virtual instruction,” she said. “We are not offering virtual instruction on a broad scale.”

Attendance rates suffered during virtual schooling last school year.

Finance and policy

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, district Chief Financial Officer Stuart Gay presented monthly financials and introduced the 2021-2022 school year budget. The budget varies quite a bit from previous years in certain areas, in part because the district is no longer directly operating any schools. Its one remaining “direct-run” school, Mary D. Coghill School, transferred to the Hynes Charter School group.

Gay explained several line items look different due to classification errors discovered during the district’s annual financial audit, which is about seven months past its initial deadline.

“Ink is drying on the audit as we speak, and it will be submitted by the end of this week,” Gay said, noting the district had received another extension. “We have seven audit findings.”

Auditors outlined those findings earlier this year.

The committee also voted to increase the auditors’ contract to $250,000 due to extra work required to complete this year’s audit, Gay said. It is expected to be $125,000 next year.

Schools will still feel the pandemic in their budgets this year, Gay said, with per-pupil funding forecast to drop from $9,423 per student to $9,069. He also estimates schools will see $500 negative deferred revenue per pupil as they did last school year

“This is a tough year,” Gay said. “We’re looking forward to 2022.”

“The sales tax rebound is really what we’re looking for, we’re hoping everyone gets vaccinated and everyone stays safe because it has an absolute effect on the resources available to students,” he said.

Legislative consultant Rodney Braxton briefly reviewed laws passed during the last legislative session. He highlighted the legalization of sports betting, noting it will eventually bring some revenue to state per-pupil funding and early childhood education.

Additionally, a bill from Sen. Joe Bouie written to restore the School Board’s ability to vote on charter schools passed. This bill removed language from state law that required a “two-thirds vote of full membership” to override the superintendent’s recommendation. 

“It basically returns the authority so that you can follow your own policy,” Braxton said.

The board’s policy, however, still requires a two-thirds vote. This could come into play Thursday when the superintendent is expected to recommend the revocation of the Dryades YMCA’s charter contract for James M. Singleton Charter School. The YMCA and district are participating in court-ordered mediation.

Board member Carlos Zervigon thanked Bouie for working with the board on crafting the bill.

Board President Ethan Ashley also updated board members on the superintendent search. Last month, Lewis announced he would not seek a contract renewal when his contract expires at the end June in 2022. The board will hold a work session Thursday to discuss what they’d like to see in a search firm and then develop an RFP to find such a contractor.

Correction: This article was corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Mary Garton’s name and site of the school.

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...