The side of Dr. King Charter School containing one of two glass block walls the NOLA Public Schools district says requires repairs. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district plans to withhold education funding from Lower 9th Ward charter school group Friends of King Schools over the network’s alleged failure to make repairs to facilities on its Fats Domino Avenue (formerly Caffin Avenue) property, which is owned by the district.  

NOLA Public Schools Interim Chief School Accountability Officer Litouri Smith informed Friends of King of the decision to withhold state funding in a May 4 warning letter — a so-called Level 2 warning, indicating a critical breach of district policy. 

Smith wrote that the charter group failed to make the requested repairs despite a series of inspections dating to last August, several follow-up demands and a previous warning letter. 

Friends of King runs Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School, an 800-student K-12 school, on two campuses it leases from the district, one on Fats Domino Avenue and one on Law Street, both in the Lower 9th Ward.

The move to withhold state funding — called Minimum Foundation Program funding — from one of its charter schools appears to be a first for the district. 

Nearly all city charter schools use campuses and buildings owned by the Orleans Parish School Board and overseen by the district, which acts as the board’s administrative arm. The nonprofit charter groups that run the schools, however, are responsible for routine maintenance under the terms of their facility lease agreements. Those agreements contain a provision allowing the district to withhold MFP funding for non-compliance.  

“Friends of King received a Level 1 Non-Compliance Notice on January 19, 2022, for these issues which defined the required next steps, deadline and continued escalation, including district managed repair with school funds, if issues were not addressed by February 21, 2022,” district spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo wrote in a Tuesday email to The Lens. “At this time Friends of King has not been able to demonstrate any such progress with the remaining items identified and, to ensure the safety of the facility, we are moving forward with the final accountability actions provided in their lease with the district and as outlined in our Facility Handbook.”

Alfonzo said the lease allows the district to withhold the amount required for repairs plus a service fee. She said the district is currently gathering quotes for the necessary repairs.

The Minimum Foundation Program provides funding to all public and charter schools in the state on a per-pupil basis. Asked whether withholding it over maintenance problems was allowed by law, Louisiana Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Beth Scioneaux told The Lens only that this was a local matter. 

“This issue is a matter of contract between the local district and the charter school,” Scioneaux wrote in an email. “LDE is not involved here.”

Charter group attorney says district is focused on minor issues

Friends of King attorney Tracie Washington said the district is overly concerned about issues that aren’t critical to the operation of the school or the health and safety of students. The first was the condition of two modular buildings that, she said, are soon to be taken off the property. 

A report from an environmental contractor performed in February said high levels of certain types of mold are present in the modulars, which have been used for storage for some time. The report also noted the buildings appear to have been without temperature control. 

“Those are going to be destroyed and removed. The cost of environmental remediation is prohibitive and not worth the value of the modulars,” Washington said.

The second, she said, is a number of cracked glass blocks on two sides of its elementary school campus. Washington acknowledged the cracks but said their facility staff hasn’t found any water intrusion and they’ve caulked the cracks just in case. 

The district’s inspection notes 20 blocks are broken on one side and 5 on the other. It calls the repair “non-critical” and notes that the repair has not been completed over the course of the school year. 

On Thursday, cracks in the block were visible from the sidewalk but it was difficult to assess how badly damaged they were. 

Washington said the school has struggled to find a contractor who can complete the project and also cited COVID-19 supply chain issues. 

Taslin Alfonzo, the NOLA Public Schools spokesperson, said the district understands but that the school has taken far too long to fix the problem.

“Due to COVID-19 disruptions and supply chain issues, we have allowed multiple options for providing progress updates to avoid further escalation such as, providing a work order or proof of purchase of supplies for the needed repair,” Alfonzo wrote. But she said Friends of King failed to show adequate progress. 

Washington said she’s advised school leaders to continue looking for a contractor and said the school would be asking for an extension from the district.

“Do you understand how ridiculous it is for the OPSB to send a letter saying it’s withholding all of your MFP money for blocks that are decorative, that are not leaking? It is not a health and safety issue,” Washington said. “We tried to find someone, we couldn’t do it and they couldn’t do it.”

In an email to The Lens on Friday, the district emphasized that it was not withholding all MFP funds but enough to cover the cost of repairs. However, they did not provide the amount that would be withheld.

Update: This story was updated with additional information from the NOLA Public Schools district.

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...