NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. will not pursue the revocation of the Dryades YMCA’s contract to operate James M. Singleton Charter School at Thursday night’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting, a district spokeswoman has confirmed.
Families and staff can breathe a sigh of relief because that means the Central City school most likely won’t close before the school year begins as Lewis had threatened in late June. Singleton is scheduled to begin classes in less than two weeks. The embattled Dryades YMCA, which the district targeted due to financial concerns, administrative issues and problematic background checks, sued the district days after Lewis’ announcement.
In early July, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley granted the Dryades YMCA’s request for a temporary restraining order and halted the district from contacting families and teachers of the Central City school. She also ordered the parties to engage in mediation. District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the two sides began mediation on July 16, and talks are still ongoing.
“In light of the parties’ good faith mediation efforts, no actions have been taken regarding the Dryades YMCA charter,” Alfronzo wrote in a Wednesday night email. “Given the ongoing mediation process, there will not be any action taken during the July 29, 2021 Board meeting related to any potential revocation of the Dryades YMCA charter.”
The lack of action comes as a bit of surprise, given Lewis’ earlier apparent determination to shutter the school over the summer — an unusually tight timeline for closing a school.
As the legal process continues, Singleton marched ahead Tuesday night, hosting its back-to-school night for families with door prizes, snacks and school supply lists.
Principal Erika Mann also sent a letter to families reassuring them the 2021-2022 school year would begin on schedule.
“You may have seen media reports regarding the possible revocation of our charter. Those statements are premature. We are currently working in good faith with Nola Public Schools to resolve disputed issues in confidential mediation,” she wrote. “Our school charter remains valid and in full force and effect and we are proceeding with confidence to open the 2021-2022 school year.”
On June 30, then-NOLA Public Schools district Chief Portfolio Officer Thomas Lambert told board members Lewis would recommend the district revoke Singleton’s charter at its July 29 meeting. He said the process had officially begun via a letter to the charter group. The district is required to give 30 days notice for such actions.
The revocation notice came following a year of district-issued warnings, including the discovery of allegedly falsified background checks which led to the school CEO and CFO’s resignation and a police investigation. The school was ordered to re-run the screenings for employees after former CFO Catrina Reed was arrested in June, accused of fabricating the documents — which are required for school employees under state law — and pocketing about $400 in fees meant to pay for them. Reed was released the day after her arrest. The case is pending in Magistrate Court while the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office considers whether to file formal charges against Reed.
The school has also received district warnings for alleged financial mismanagement — claiming parent organization Dryades YMCA owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school. But Dryades YMCA officials have argued the organization can’t owe itself money. The district has also taken issue with the school’s interim CEO Samuel Odom, who resigned from the Dryades YMCA board to take the interim position on a volunteer basis. The district argues this is a violation of state ethics law while Dryades YMCA officials contend it is not. They are waiting on an advisory opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to help settle the matter.
On July 2, the Dryades YMCA filed the lawsuit requesting a temporary restraining order and mediation. The judge granted the order the next day and scheduled a hearing for the following week.
One of the issues at stake in the lawsuit was the district’s perceived threat to move students to new schools and help teachers find new jobs before the revocation process was finalized. In a typical revocation, the superintendent recommends a charter be revoked and once presented to the board, his decision stands unless the board overrides him with a two-thirds vote within one month.
Part of the process requires the district to notify families of the school that it is planning to close it. In a June 30 press release, officials wrote “All students attending the school will have guaranteed spots at First Line Live Oak Academy once the revocation process is complete.”
In court on July 9, lawyers for Singleton argued that moving students from the school before its charter was officially revoked would interfere with the independent school autonomy guaranteed in its contract with the district. They also noted low enrollment could threaten its ability to stay open.
Judge Jennifer Medley empathized with the school and its families, noting the district’s presentation and talking points at the June 30 meeting implied students would actively be moved to new schools.
“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.
Medley granted the YMCA’s request and the district was barred from contacting families before any revocation became final.
“The district has not reassigned any students from the school, nor will the district reassign students from the school in advance of any action related to the Dryades YMCA charter becoming final,” Alfonzo wrote Wednesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, Singleton was nowhere to be seen on the district’s summer enrollment seat availability website. Parents can check this website during the summer to see which schools still have open seats for the upcoming school year. Singleton’s absence was of note because the district has cut off enrollment to failing charters in the past.
But Alfonzo said that was a mistake and students could and can still enroll at the school.
“The inadvertent error on the projected seat availability chart was brought to our attention yesterday afternoon, and was immediately rectified,” she wrote in a Thursday morning email. “In addition to updating the projected seat availability chart available on the Enroll NOLA website, NOLA PS is also notifying all K-8 families today that seats are available at The James M. Singleton Charter School.”
“The James M. Singleton Charter School has not been removed as an enrollment option in OneApp and remains an option for families to select for their K-8 students,” Alfonzo said. “The district has not reassigned any students from the school, nor will the district reassign students from the school in advance of any action related to the Dryades YMCA charter becoming final.”
In fact, students continue to enroll, she wrote.
“As recently as yesterday, families were enrolling their students at the James M. Singleton Charter School,” Alfonzo wrote.
Alfonzo said if any family ran into trouble enrolling, they should contact the district.
While Singleton appears to have avoided closure for now, the school’s fate is far from clear. It is in the final year of its charter contract, which will be up for renewal this fall. Lewis’ decision on whether to grant the group a new contract will heavily depend on how the school did in its standardized tests last spring and the state letter grade it receives based on them. Its previous warnings from the district will also factor in.