NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

Orleans Parish School Board members rejoiced over a funding victory at their Thursday night meeting, a few hours after the New Orleans City Council voted to rescind a controversial resolution setting a new process for doling out millions of dollars in annual grant money that was formerly guaranteed to go to school district programs.

The resolution, passed over School Board objections, would have brought the Mayor’s Office of  Youth and Families into the process, raising the possibility that the money — from the city’s Harrah’s Casino Fund — would go to other educational programs, specifically early childhood education, that are not overseen by the School Board and the district. It was approved two weeks ago, during the final meeting of the previous council, as five of seven council members were poised to vacate their seats. 

But on Thursday, the new council made a late addition to its regular meeting agenda and unanimously voted to rescind the resolution, returning Harrah’s Fund negotiations to a two-sided process between the council and school district. 

“As board president, we’re grateful for the council. We have some partners now who are serious about working with our district,” Ethan Ashley said Thursday, his last meeting as board president. The board unanimously elected Olin Parker to serve as board president for the calendar year and J.C. Romero as vice president. 

“It is a good first step and work we know needs to continue as we try to solve some of the most critical issues coming out of one of the most challenging times,” Ashley said. 

For years, the money has funded three school-district programs: the Travis Hill School at the city juvenile detention center, the Center for Resilience for students with severe behavioral needs and the district’s Office of Student Support, which helps students with attendance and truancy issues. 

But over the last year, council members advocated for moving the funds to support early childhood education instead. The council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration hoped to use at least some of the money to pay for now-rescinded resolution, sponsored by outgoing Councilman Jay Banks on Jan. 7. At the meeting, Banks argued that the money should be open to any and all educational programs, not just K-12 programs overseen by the School Board.

In a committee meeting earlier this week, School Board members criticized the move. It appears the new council heard them loud and clear. On Thursday, the first full meeting for the five newly elected council members, Councilman J.P. Morrell called the recent change a “backwards move.”

During the hours-long council meeting that in part focused on violent crime in the city, Morrell and other council members noted that the district programs funded through Harrah’s grants in large part serve troubled and traumatized youth. 

“These programs that were defunded by the previous author of this resolution. This is actually the first line of defense to keep kids from getting into dirt and doing bad things,” he said. “This is our opportunity to correct this. … So that we can work with the school board as a partner to deter juvenile crime.”

Board member Carlos Zervigon spoke at the virtual council meeting, thanking council members for their work.

“The first line of defense to public safety is public education,” council member Oliver Thomas said. 

“You cannot separate the conversation about juvenile crime in particular and the lack of educational opportunity,” Morrell added. 

While the money is still not guaranteed to go to the district, as it historically did until Harrah’s signed a new lease with the city in 2020, it appears the council is interested in working with the School Board moving forward. 

“What was missing in that decision was the collaboration and input with other stakeholders and the school board,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “The bottom line is we need to work together and figure out a path together for this funding.”

Vaccine Mandate, School Closings

The School Board on Thursday expanded an employee vaccine mandate to include a COVID-19 booster. The mandate will apply to central office employees who work directly for the school district, not teachers, administrators and support staff members who work for the city’s charter schools. 

The NOLA Public Schools district first passed an employee vaccine mandate in August. Many charter schools, which employ the vast majority of public education workers in the city, have also instituted mandates of their own. The district is also the first in the state to enact a student vaccine mandate. (A statewide school vaccine mandate proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, is not scheduled to take effect until the fall.) Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. reiterated that Feb. 1 is the deadline for all students ages 5 and older to be fully vaccinated.

“We are among the first, if not the first to do this. And it is essential that we follow through so our students can get the most out of the second half of this school year and protect themselves and their families,” he said.

State law allows families to opt out of the vaccination if they choose. 

Official: No more closure announcements this year

A spokesperson for the NOLA Public Schools district on Thursday told The Lens that families should not expect to face additional school closures, beyond the four already announced, at the end of this school year as the district continues to work on a “right-sizing” plan to address under-enrollment. 

Two schools — FirstLine Live Oak Academy and IDEA Oscar Dunn — officially relinquished their charter contracts on Thursday, agreeing to close the schools in June due to under-enrollment. The schools had already announced earlier this month that they intended to close. (Two additional charter schools — James M. Singleton Charter School and Arise Academy — will also close in May after failing to receive a new charter operating contract because of academic performance.)

Lewis’ administration was scheduled to give a presentation on district demographics as part of the right-sizing process, but delayed it because an out-of-town consultant working on the report was unable to make the meeting in person due to the COVID surge. 

But it appears that no additional schools will be right-sized out of the system in the near term, a district spokesperson told The Lens on Thursday. 

“The four schools you mention are the only ones that are closing at the end of this school year,” Taslin Alfonzo said. She added that families whose children attend the closing schools will be given a special, school-closing priority designation for available seats in the district’s enrollment lottery, called the NOLA-PS Common Application Process, or NCAP. (The system was previously called OneApp.)

Alfonzo said that as of Thursday, the district had received 892 NCAP applications from students in the schools, about 73 percent of their total enrollment. Asked if students who did not complete an application would be assigned to a specific school, as the district has done in the past, she said that was not the case this year.

“We value parents’ choices and there are no ‘default’ school assignments. Parents have the opportunity to sign up during the Main Round, Round 2, or Summer Enrollment,” she said. “In addition, our enrollment team has partnered with EdNavigator to assist families with the application process.”

NCAP’s main round opened on Nov. 1 and ends Friday, Jan. 21. Results from the first round are expected in late March, district officials said, and a second round begins one week later. 

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...