The Orleans Parish School Board may change charter renewal process

The Orleans Parish School Board may lower the threshold for overriding the superintendent when it comes to charter school renewals

The Orleans Parish School Board may once again approve annual charter renewal decisions — dictating which schools close and which remain open — but board members are considering whether to lower the threshold required to override the superintendent. 

For years, the highly anticipated closure announcements, communicated annually in November and December, were made with virtually no channel for public input of affected school children, families or staff — that is unless the board attempted to override the superintendent. A move that has only happened once in recent years and failed. 

Critics of the decentralized school system have long argued the board, and the citizens they represent, should have a stronger voice in charter renewal decisions, while proponents argue the current system shields charter management from politics. 

The board was largely stripped of its charter management authority by Act 91, which gives near unilateral power to the superintendent to decide which nonprofit-run charter schools up for contract renewal with the district will remain open and which close. Under the current system, the board can only overturn superintendent Avis Williams’ recommendation with a two-thirds supermajority vote within one month of a recommendation’s presentation.

Board member Carlos Zervigon has been a proponent of changing the policy since he took office in 2020. On Tuesday afternoon, when considering the balance of power, he also recalled tumultuous times in the city’s education system when distrust in the school board or superintendent ran rampant, including officials landing in jail

“I was very uncomfortable with the Act. I couldn’t help but feel that in Baton Rouge, the black majority constituency in New Orleans was being deprived of its say in the black majority school system in New Orleans,” he said.

“Wearing those scars is part of what makes me think of it in a simple majority way,” he said. “Who are you most afraid of? A bad board? A bad superintendent? It’s risk management.”

New law allows for change

A 2021 bill removed the five-vote supermajority requirement from state law, but the board has left its policy requiring that threshold in place. Board members at the time passed a resolution unanimously supporting the bill — but they haven’t acted on its changes until now. 

At a committee meeting on Tuesday afternoon, board members discussed proposed language that would lower the threshold to “a simple majority vote of the Board Members present.”

That could have the marked effect of dramatically reducing the votes necessary to override the superintendent from five members, regardless of how many are present, to just three members in a situation where only four members were present. 

Board member Olin Parker said such a change concerned him and he wanted to ensure the process was insulated from lobbying by charter school board members, staff or other people. 

“I think if you look at our recent past there would be examples of schools that should not have continued that maybe would have continued with that lobbying,” he said.

“Students are in a better place now because the super majority was in place,” Parker said. “My personal view is our current policy is one that I continue to support.”

But other members, like Donaldo Batiste, argued politics were inherent in the nature of their elected positions. 

“I don’t see the difference between the super majority and the majority in that vein — because I think the opportunity for politics will always be a part of this,” Batiste said. 

Board member Katie Baudouin agreed. 

“I think politics will always be involved and I think that’s our duty as board members, when weighing decisions, is to determine where our politics lie. I don’t think remaining at the supermajority eliminates the political aspect of this,” she said. 

“I’m personally still on the supermajority train — with something as important on these decisions we should have a very close to consensus opinion on it as a board,” she said. 

However Baudouin, echoed board member Nolan Marshall. Both thought the decision should rest with the superintendent. 

“We should trust our superintendent to make decisions and if we don’t we should be looking for a new superintendent. And also we’re not privy to a lot of the information the superintendent uses to make the decision,” she said. 

Marshall said if he got to a place in which he was questioning the superintendent, that would indicate a bigger problem.

“If we get to that point then I think we should be in a position to look for a new superintendent — that’s my personal feeling,” Marshall said. 

“I’d like the four vote. I wouldn’t use it, unless I had a reason as Mr. Zervigon pointed out, that I’ve lost confidence in the superintendent or I think she’s making political decisions,” he said.

“I would not exercise that unless I had extreme reason to do so,” he said. “I guess I’m agreeing I want that ability — but I would not use it unless I have lost confidence in my superintendent.”

Board member Leila Eames also said she wanted the superintendent to be in charge of the decision. 

Parker again questioned the suggested language.

“The policy as written right now could overturn the will of the superintendent with three votes. So you could theoretically overturn or accept the superintendent’s decision with less than the full majority of the board,” he said. 

“Simple majority with those ‘present and voting’ makes me quite squeamish,” he said. “Simple majority of the board I would be more comfortable with that. I want to be clear, I am still firmly in favor of the super majority.”

“A simple majority of those present and voting gives me pause for shenanigans reasons,” he said. 

The board could consider the policy at their April board meeting. 

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...