John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is proposing a third — and more severe — tier of warnings that it could issue to charter schools failing to comply with previous warnings resulting from noncompliance with their contracts, district policy, or state or federal law, according to draft recommendations presented Tuesday.

The warning system serves as official communication between the district and individual charters and is often the clearest insight into specific violations at local schools made publicly available. 

The addition of a “notice of concern,” “Level III” warning and “notice of revocation” would fill out the district’s current practice of issuing so-called Level I or Level II notices of concern. Rafael Simmons, the district’s Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer, presented those proposed changes to Orleans Parish School Board members at their committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. 

Currently, charter schools may receive Level I warnings for smaller issues such as failing to file certain financial reports or respond to district inquiries. Level II warnings are issued for more serious infractions, such as severe shortcomings in special education services.

In the additions would be a “Level III and Notice of Revocation, both of which are more severe,” Simmons said.

“A Level III would be issued when there has been a failure to remediate or failure to communicate,” he explained. “A Level III is a little different — it can’t come out of the blue.”

The new proposal would also take additional steps to formalize revocation proceedings. Though several charter schools have voluntarily surrendered their contracts under district pressure, the district has only once initiated revocation proceeds — and it got messy. 

In June 2021, district officials threatened to revoke the Dryades YMCA’s charter for James M. Singleton Charter School six weeks before the school year was set to begin, prompting the charter group to sue the district. The lawsuit resulted in a temporary restraining order allowing the school to open that fall.

One of the core issues in the suit was whether the district had officially initiated, or merely threatened to start, revocation proceedings. 

Other considerations

Board member Carlos Zervigon asked whether the district would consider adding appeals language to its warning policy, noting the district and schools sometimes dispute facts when such warnings are issued. 

“We do have a small internal team that is looking at appeal language,” Simmons said. 

Zervigon said he considered an appeals process “critical.”

More than 10 New Orleans schools have sat for years with level II warnings issued as a result of findings from Louisiana Department of Education reviews required by the special education consent decree.

The addition of a level III warning would appear to give the district latitude to separate those schools making progress in correcting problems with those that are not. 

The proposal comes along with several considered changes for the district’s “charter school accountability framework.” A document that governs the relationship between the district and its charter schools. The district is also considering more heavily weighting its own standards in charter renewal decisions, including growth scores, and being less reliant on the school performance scores — A-F letter grades — issued annually by the state.

Growth scores measure the difference in year-over-year performance, or a student’s growth, versus an absolute score, more heavily favored by the state. 

Zervigon, who served on charter school boards before being elected to the Orleans Parish School Board, wanted to ensure the district wasn’t putting itself in danger of losing its governance to state control. 

“Are we at risk of the state wanting to intervene?” Zervigon asked, noting for example if the district failed to close a school with a poor letter grade. “There was a time when the state had an appetite to take over schools. I think they found it’s not as easy as they thought.”

Simmons said the district would follow up with state officials. 

“We’ll definitely get some clarifying questions answered about that possible unintended consequence,” he said. 

The district tracks charter schools based on their academic, financial and organizational performance and considers them in “good standing” or “not in good standing.”

“That binary does not always accurately represent a school’s performance,” Simmons said. 

An expanded system would allow the district to classify a school as “generally good standing.”

The administration will continue to work on the proposed changes and plans to submit them for board approval by August. 

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...