Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

John Mac’s fate still up in limbo as BESE questions its own authority

4th August 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

At Wednesday’s meeting in New Orleans, the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education (BESE) members failed to vote on the return of John McDonogh High School to local control.

Finding themselves in unchartered territory, the board did not seem to know whether or not they even have the authority to make the decision.

BESE Vice President James Garvey said the decision was up to Re­cov­ery School District (RSD) Super­in­ten­dent Patrick Dobard and Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) Interim President Stan Smith.

BESE member Lottie Beebe said that BESE is the oversight board and needs to make the decision – not Dobard.

On July 29, the OPSB passed a resolution requesting the return of John Mac by BESE and the RSD. The vote was unanimous, aside from the brief disappearance of board member Sarah Usdin at the time of the vote.

In a statement released by State Superintendent John White’s office, White and the RSD appear intent on keeping the school, with renovations starting “immediately.”

But it remains unanswered why the RSD would be so intent on holding on to a school they have so inexcusably failed to turnaround.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Dobard said that he is still determined to transform John Mac and will seek community input, despite failing for more than eight years to either improve the school or to genuinely engage the community.

Many argue that White and the RSD have inflicted much more harm than good on the children of John Mac. Numerous people stood up at the meeting during the public comment session to berate Dobard and the RSD for their failures at John Mac and their persistent disrespect of the community.

Beebe suggested freeing up some additional funding by starting the discussion about the continued need for Dobard and his central staff, now that all schools have been either closed or handed to privately-run, publicly funded charter operators.

Dobard earns an annual salary about $250,000 and continues to act as superintendent of a district in which, despite being entirely privatized, about 80 percent of the schools are rated either a “D” or an “F.”

According to a study by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives:

“Intended as a mechanism for restructuring and reform, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent part of the public school governance landscape in New Or­leans. Instead, the RSD was meant to take control of and turn around chronically failing schools for an initial period of five years. After that time, and assuming adequate school improvement, schools would be released from the jurisdiction of the RSD and returned to their local school board. “

After more than 8 years of neglect, exploitation, broken promises, and academic failure, the John Mc­Donogh community believes that the RSD has had their chance — multiple chances — to do something positive for the children at John Mac.

The RSD couldn’t, the RSD didn’t, and now the community expects accountability.

Before the conclusion of Wednesday’s BESE meeting, Garvey insisted on clarification from lawyers regarding who holds the authority to make the decision to move the school back to the OPSB. He said he wanted attorneys to be present for the vote.

But by giving the decision-making power to Dobard, Garvey would be essentially allowing the (unelected) RSD to provide its own oversight, with no governing body to hold the RSD accountable for their failures.

And there is nothing written into the law that requires any sort of time limit on RSD governance.

At the OPSB’s July meeting, members of the John McDonogh community presented the board member with a plan to bring the school back to the board’s governance as a traditional neighborhood school.

According to the proposal: “We seek to create a community school to the extent that OPSB, as the legally recognized “LEA” (Local Education Authority) encourages and supports “shared governance” with the “John McDonogh High School Board of Advisers.” This Community Board of Advisers will consist of members of the Treme Community, alumni, parents, business leaders, university partners, and volunteers providing professional services.”

The proposal also describes the school’s “rich past” and century of contributions – an impressive and long-running record of athletic achievement, an architecture program that built a home in the neighborhood, a health clinic that served the entire community, an award-winning cosmetology program that certified students upon graduation, and a history of student-driven community service.

The plan calls for a college preparatory and career readiness direct-run high school that, with the “strategic use of local/state/federal funds and business partnerships,” also serves as a 21st Century Community Learning Center.

Community Learning Centers offer additional support, programs, and enrichment opportunities to students and their families.

Shawon Bernard, a former assistant principal at John Mac and member of the John McDonogh Steering Committee, told the BESE members that she has already seen what the RSD’s process of “community engagement” means – and that the only hope for the school lies with the OPSB.

Bernard also told the board that she hopes they can get their legal issues resolved before the New Orleans residents travel to Baton Rouge for the next meeting.

Garvey said that the John McDonogh issue will be on the agenda at BESE’s next meeting.

Beebe said that BESE has an obligation to the community to return the school and is doing an injustice by not adhering to their needs.

“I believe you have the authority to say yes or no, and I hope that you say yes,” Bernard said.

The next BESE meeting will be held August 13 in Baton Rouge.

This article originally published in the August 4, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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