NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

At a specially called meeting on Tuesday, The Orleans Parish School Board passed a resolution opposing a proposed bill sponsored by state Sen. Joe Bouie, Democrat of New Orleans, that would repeal a part of state law that automatically grants operational autonomy to new charter schools, instead leaving the decision up to the board when it negotiates new charter contracts.

Bouie — known for past attempts to restore traditional, direct-run schools to the all-charter city — touted the bill as a way to return more authority to the elected school board, by working more language into their operating agreements with charter schools. But board members criticized Bouie for not directly involving the board in its crafting of the potential legislation, which they said would disproportionately affect New Orleans. Bouie disputed a lack of communication, saying he’d contacted five board members.

Other board members argued that there was no need for any such changes in state law when they could accomplish it via policy changes. The bill, Senate Bill 404, has yet to go to a vote in the state House or Senate. It is currently awaiting a hearing before the Senate Education Committee.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the measure expressing opposition to Bouie’s bill. Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. was the sole vote against the resolution.

Bouie’s bill would change language in Act 91 of 2016, which returned state-run Recovery School District charters to the oversight of OPSB. Act 91 provides some city charter schools with more independence than charters overseen by other school boards. 

Current law also allowed RSD charters to return as independent local education agencies, or their own district. If approved, charters would have to seek OPSB approval to become an LEA.

Charter schools operate largely independent of the school board and central office. They set their own calendars, hire and fire their own staff, set salaries and benefits and curriculum. 

“Charters automatically have these autonomies,” Bouie said at the meeting Tuesday. “Return to our elected school board the authority of whether you want to decide they have these autonomies. At the point those schools come up for renewal … we may want to maintain these because we want to retain some authority.” 

“If this approach is so great, why isn’t every other municipality doing it?” Bouie said. “Members, I urge you to reconsider — please take back your statutory authority that is granted to every other school board in this state.”

Board member Carlos Zervigon criticized Bouie for not providing the bill until it had been filed. They disagreed on when and whether Bouie’s staff had shared it.

“I would like to start again, and I would like to collaborate,” Zervigon said, a sentiment that was echoed by board president Olin Parker as well.

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. was more receptive to the bill. 

“I’m in favor of giving this board back its authority — no question about it,” Marshall said. 

Marshall pushed back against another of Bouie’s criticisms of the current system, that the board doesn’t approve charter renewals. Those are done by the superintendent. Under board policy, OPSB members can override the superintendent’s recommendation but only with a two-thirds vote. 

The two-thirds requirement was previously contained in state law as well. A 2021 bill sponsored by Bouie and passed by the legislature removed it, but allowed local boards to use their own policies for override votes. OPSB, however, retained its two-thirds policy.

Speaking to charter school leaders worried about Bouie’s current bill, Marshall emphasized that the board chose not to assert a greater degree of power in that case.

“In the accountability this board has approved, this is how we weigh in on each school. None of these board members evaluate these schools — we hire people to do that evaluation process,” Marshall said. “I think it’s disingenuous and gets to be politics when you try to override somebody who has done that work.”

“I know the charter school leaders and board members are afraid of what this board may do, but I don’t think anybody should be afraid,” he said.

The board heard two hours of public comments, the vast majority of which were in favor of Bouie’s bil and much of which were broad criticisms of the city’s decentralized school district.

“If you vote for this resolution that says you don’t want to do your job — resign immediately,” Alicia Plummer, a former candidate for the New Orleans City Council and a frequent critic of charter-era school governance in New Orleans. 

The Rev. Willie Calhoun Jr. also said the board should have more oversight into daily operations at charter schools.

“When you are not involved in any of these operations — curriculum, hiring, firing — that says the people that elected you don’t have a voice in it either,” he said.

At times, during the long public comment period, audience members would speak over each other or approach the board members and a few members of the public were escorted from the meeting at the request of Parker. 

Sarah Vandergriff Kelley, of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, came to oppose the bill and support the board’s resolution.

“You all have all of the power — in the fact that you have a contract that allows you to update it with policy,” Kelley said. “You do have all the current authority — you can operate traditional schools today if you wanted.”

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...