The Orleans Parish School Board selected a superintendent search firm at its Tuesday committee meeting, and its administrative arm, NOLA Public Schools, recapped the internal review of its response to Hurricane Ida for board members. 

The committee forwarded a recommendation of Greenwood/Asher & Associates to lead the three-month search process for $90,000. The contract faces one more vote at a full board meeting before it can be finalized.The firm is based in Florida. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced last summer he would be stepping down at the end of contract in the summer of 2022.

“We are finally at the point where we have the opportunity to approve the search firm that will take us through the process,” board president Ethan Ashley said. “For the community, it’s the time to get involved.”

He encouraged the public to visit a special website set up for the search to provide feedback and specifically the qualities they’d like to see in a superintendent.

“We want to get as much information from you as possible,” Ashley said, noting they would be scheduling listening sessions across the city. “Now is the time.”

The much-awaited announcement about whether six charter schools that did not meet the district’s standards for charter renewal was not revealed at Tuesday’s meeting. Lewis could grant them a renewal or shutter the schools. That will be announced at Thursday’s full board meeting.

The board also heard from district Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour, who had several updates on facility repairs and the district’s “Hurricane Ida After Action Review.”

“Within NOLA Public Schools we have 28 members of our team who are considered essential personnel,” Delcour said. “Some are required to be on site and some are required to be available virtually.”

She said the district’s plan is very “binary” and based specifically on whether the city calls for an evacuation — that’s not feasible now, she said.

In the last days of August, Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified into a powerful category 4 storm that decimated Louisiana’s coastal communities and caused significant damage in New Orleans, where the majority of the city was without power for well over a week. 

“The rapid intensification of storms is our new norm — it’s not always going to be black and white,” Delcour said.

Among district-owned school buildings, Frederick Douglass High School suffered the worst of the damage, and students will not be able to return to the building until after winter break. They are temporarily taking classes in another district building. Repairs at Douglass will continue even after students return, and won’t be complete until the summer, Delcour said.

The district is reviewing how it works with its charter operators — the majority of which lease district-owned buildings — during emergency situations.

“One of the main issues is the level of responsibility we give our charter schools in an emergency and what happens if they are not able to meet those requirements in an emergency because they need to take care of their own families,” Delcour said.

A significant number of residents evacuated pre-Ida and thousands more after the storm wiped out the city’s power grid. 

“In a non-mandatory evacuation we’ve asked schools to be first responders to check their buildings,” Delcour said. “In an event like Ida that did not work.”

“I think the issue is what is ‘reasonable responsibility,’” she said.

Delcour said her team will present a report in the coming months. 

Board members also questioned the district’s “swing space” capacity. “Swing space” refers to empty buildings that schools can occupy during capital construction or disaster repairs. 

Cohen High School students are currently occupying the Edgar Harney campus while their new building is being completed. 

“So we already were using our swing space for capital construction needs,” Delcour said. “I think the challenge Dr. Lewis and I see, is there is not funding to maintain swing space. The facilities preservation program only maintains buildings that students are enrolled in — that’s a challenge we have to solve for.”

Foundation Preparatory students had to immediately move out of their building the day after Halloween when a sprinkler system leak flooded the majority of the first floor and caused major damage to the school’s main electrical panel. They are at Banneker Elementary for the time-being. Some upper grades of Berhman Elementary are in a temporary location after a fire damaged the upper floors of the building.

“The fear that Mr. Gay and I always debate is how much cost we set ourselves up for in the event a storm does shift to the east or to the west.”

The district also accepted a $350,000 grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that will help build out the district’s Early Warning System that aims to keep students in school. The system will utilize individual student data — such as attendance, behavior and course performance — to identify students who aren’t on track to graduate and help them.

The grant will “support the initial development of a district-wide early warning system to better support students across the district.”

With this money, district Assistant Superintendent Mary Garton said the district will build its own system, instead of purchasing software. “With this approach, we can also expand to different types of data tracking.”

For the first time in history, the decentralized district began tracking charter school students’ attendance during the pandemic, requiring schools to report weekly attendance rates. Attendance rates varied widely at the beginning of virtual school last school year.

District officials thanked board member Nolan Marshall Jr. for his help in pushing the effort to collect more school-level data at the district level. 

“The first of hopefully many to come,” Marshall said of centralized attendance tracking.

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...