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100 Black Men host well-attended forum on ‘public school unification’

25th April 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

As legislation moves through the house and senate seeking an end to the fractured system of education governance in New Orleans, the 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans last week held a “Public School Unification Forum.”

According to 100 Black Men president Jonathan Wilson, “The question is not if public schools should be returned to local control. There is a general sentiment that schools should be under the governance of the Orleans Parish School Board [OPSB]. If the schools are to be returned, the community must be more engaged in the future of public education. A true story of resilience for public education in New Orleans would conclude with a single high-performing school district governed by members of the community by the city’s 300th anniversary.”

At the packed house event which drew more than 100 people, the panelists included OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., Thelma French of Total Community Action Inc. (TCA), Orleans Parish Education Network (OPEN) Executive Director Deirdre Johnson-Burel, Jamar McKneely of InspireNOLA and New Orleans College Prep CEO Ben Kleban. The forum was moderated by Oliver Thomas.

While the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) was never intended to have a permanent presence in the city, it has taken more than a decade for any meaningful steps toward legally mandating the return of schools to local control.

Today, five bills are being considered that lay out a timeline for the return of the RSD schools and facilities to the democratically elected Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). All set either 2018 or 2019 as the date upon which all schools must return.

McNeely stressed the importance of unification of the districts for the entire city. “As long as it is divided, it is not in the best interest of the city,” he said. “Citizens deserve the right for a democratic system, he said, and it should happen as quickly as possible.”

On the same day as the forum (April 20), Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson’s SB 432 was passed unanimously by the state Senate, and is pending debate by the state House. It is being discussed as the bill with the most momentum and support.

Carter-Peterson, who is the wife of RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson, sets a timeline in her bill in which no less than 10 RSD schools return by July of 2017, the rest by July, 2018. There is a clause stretching it to 2019 if the OPSB determines a need.

Three other bills (HB 466, 1103, and 1108,) were authored by Sen. Joseph Bouie, and HB 1111 was authored by Rep. Neil Abramson.

There is disagreement, however, between the competing bills on just how quickly the schools, and facilities, should return. There are other concerns that schools coming from the all-charter RSD, with each operator essentially accustomed to acting as their own autonomous “mini-district,” still lack genuine public oversight and accountability.

A question was asked by an audience member during the forum about whether there were voices at the table representing anything other than a charter school – to which the answer, at least concerning the high-level discussions in Baton Rouge specifically regarding SB 432, was “No,” according to Superintendent Lewis.

Lewis said he, as well as RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard, and other “stakeholders” were asked to engage in the process related to the drafting of the bills, and planning for a path of return.

Those two words – “oversight and accountability” – were uttered countless times during the forum, whether talking about the state’s often dubious and convoluted data (as well as unreliable self-reported data from the charter schools), special education monitoring, millage spending, and discipline policies. The grading systems – both at the school and state level – has also lacked accuracy, many noted, when parents aren’t sure “If a B is still an F.”

First and foremost, “We need good information,” Johnson-Burel said. “We need credible, solid information, and data we can trust.”

Another oft-repeated word was “equity,” especially related to the discussion of the recent approval of a new funding formula.

While the new formula was hailed as a “huge” and positive step forward, several of the panelists warned it still lacks accountability in terms of how those dollars allocated are actually spent.

“Simply allocating them and saying that you’ll do good with them is insufficient,” Johnson-Burel said, specifically referring to money designated for students with special needs.

“There are a lot of people suspicious of where the money goes right now,” French said.

And, said McNeely, “We need more funding, period.”

“Transparency” was another key word throughout the evening – evidence of significant distrust of both the state and charter operators.

For more than 10 years, tragic side effects of the fractured “takeover” system have included the pushing out of students who require additional time and resources, insanely high out-of-school suspension rates, reprehensible treatment of students with special needs (and their families), and the approval of greedy out-of-state charter operators who seemingly exploit children for financial gain, or who are inexperienced and inept in the field of child education.

A number of people at the forum also expressed their sadness at the city’s loss of neighborhood schools.

Critics of SB 432 feel it is “overprescribed,” or a “Trojan Horse,” and has too much written into it that could make return not only more cumbersome but also leaving too much power in the hands of charter operators and without adequate public oversight.

“The Louisiana legislature has a very bad habit of over specification in policy,” said French. “We create more laws now than any other period in history.”

Bouie’s bills were described as a “streamlined” version of SB 432.

Kleban said he supports local sovereignty, but also that he doesn’t see anything in SB 432 that would infringe on that sovereignty. And the bill still reassures a level of autonomy as written into charter school law, he said, which is important for allowing principals and teachers the freedom to do their job and direct resources as they see fit. Kleban also noted accountability comes by itself in that “If we don’t deliver, our organization goes out of business and doesn’t receive funds anymore.”

Lewis stressed that the OPSB has procedures in place to hold charter operators accountable.

When a question was asked about the skyrocketing salaries for CEOs, CAOs and other six-figure positions, like “Director of positive education/programming,” that never existed before the RSD came in, Kleban acknowledged that he too had seen a news article published that same day on charter salaries.

With an annual salary of just over $147,000, Kleban didn’t make the Top 10.

Lusher CEO Kathy Reidlinger topped the list at $262,778. Lusher is one of numerous selective admission schools in the city applauded for A ratings while hand-picking only the students they want. Including selective admissions schools in the same performance evaluation as those willing to open their doors to all students, has long been a criticism of the way the state presents its data.

Kleban stated he would support more transparency around those salaries.

Other questions concerned parental and community engagement, safe and secure environments, the power of charter authorization by the OPSB, the OneApp common enrollment system, the use of inexperienced and uncertified Teach for America recruits, and the national narrative on the New Orleans experiment that has largely been – and most agreed very inaccurately – labeled a “success.”

At one time or another, every panelist acknowledged the city and its schools have a very long way to go in ensuring every child has the opportunity for a high-quality education.

Questions were asked about whether, 11 years into “reform,” the statistics on child poverty, juvenile crime, and employment and wage gaps, reflect the real success or failure of the experiment.

“We’ve made progress, but we are still not there,” McNeely said.

Of unification, “This is an idea whose time is come,” Johnson-Burel said.

This article originally published in the April 25, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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