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Robichaux argues to keep reform going on OPSB

15th October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Thomas Robichaux finishes his first term on the Orleans Parish School Board as its President with a certain satisfaction.
“Four years ago, the most common question asked of us as candidates was ‘will you dissolve the OPSB?’’ he explained. “This time, the most common question is, ‘How many schools are coming back and when?’”

“This shows a sea-change in the public perception of the OPSB and faith that the public has in us. Four years ago, few believed that the OPSB could be saved. Now we can safely say that we have done just that. What was thought impossible has been achieved by this school board. I believe that the impossible is just the beginning.”

So, the former city attorney opted to run for re-election to the Board. In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Robichaux pointed to a few singular accomplishments since ascending to the OPSB four years ago. “I worked very hard creating our DBE program, 90 percent of which I wrote myself. I have also been a forceful advocate on anti-bullying measures both in OPSB and in the Legislature. I have worked hard to lead the entire board forward with reforms and worked hard to repair the relationships with the RSD and LaDOE that were so damaged under the previous administration.”

The reforms, particularly the financial ones, have been so effective that he believes that Robichaux declared, “We reasonably expect that a handful of schools will return to OPSB within the next year, with more to follow in the years to come. The state and RSD have made it clear that they too expect this to occur. This is a significant shift from just a few years ago, when it was clear that the state did not want ANY schools to return. However, the results of the pending election will have a direct impact on charter schools’ choice to return or not. If the OPSB shifts course even a little, we are virtually guaranteed that schools will choose to not return.”

Robichaux defined this reform “course” in three areas. As he outlined, “1) Academic improvement. Having the highest rate of improvement among school districts in Louisiana; Having the #1 cohort graduation rate in the state; and being the #2 School District Overall; 2) Shoring up the financial foundation of the system – OPSB has one of the highest bond ratings of any governmental entity in the metro area, and is more fiscally sound than it has been in 40 years, this includes removal of loopholes that allowed patronage and corruption; [and ]3) School Culture – OPSB now has one of the most comprehensive zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies in the South. I have personally led the effort locally and statewide to push these reforms because children have a right to a safe learning environment.”

When asked how the expansion of school vouchers will impact enrollment at OPSB-run schools and in the OPSB overseen charters, the Board President replied, “OPSB schools compete with the very best private and public schools in the area, therefore, actual enrollment will not be significantly affected by the Voucher program. However, the fiscal impact may be significant. In addition to MFP funding that is diverted to the voucher program, local tax dollars are also taken from our citizens’ pockets and sent to these schools, the majority of which are low-performing.”

Nor does he foresee conversion to a complete charter system in Orleans as John White has proposed. “I believe that it is important that a few schools remain direct-run. However, we have worked to give more and more autonomy to our traditional school leaders so that they run more independently that traditional schools have in the past.”

Some on the board have proposed donating the OPSB properties to the Charters to give respon­sibility to the school operators over the properties. Robichaux said firmly, “The donation of publicly owned property is unconstitutional. In addition, until the Master Plan is completed many charter schools are not in their ‘permanent’ locations, and may move.”

“Furthermore, since charter schools are independent entities and may fail, move, be dissolved, or merge, etc., it is of great importance that the property remain available for use as a school by another entity or the OPSB. However, I am not opposed in principle to donating usufruct for the duration of the charter school, which would achieve a similar result.” That is, the charter taking responsibility for maintenance and insurance costs currently accrued to the Board and System.

When queried about the status of the distribution of nearly $2 billion of FEMA money for post-Katrina, Robichaux maintained, “The reconstruction of schools is handled under the joint Master Plan and administered overall by the Joint Master Plan Oversight Committee. However, there is a division of projects between the OPSB and the RSD. We are breaking ground on five new sites this fall, including Harte and McDonogh 35.”

Special Education, or lack of it in New Orleans, has been a driving issue post-Katrina. When asked what improvements need to be made, how far have you come in the last four years, and whether the charters working with special ed more effectively than in past years, Robichaux stated, “The OPSB direct operated schools have increased the number of students served in the last four years within the physical capacity of our buildings.”

“As students have aged up,” he continued, “we have had to add or convert classes to continue the educational opportunity for our students. Enrollment for students with disabilities is greater in some charter schools than others. The students with disabilities enrolled in both direct operated and charter schools receive services in accordance with their IEP’s. The OPSB is required to ensure that all students are provided a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). All OPSB schools have done an excellent job. Our charter schools are doing a very effective job in educating the students with disabilities enrolled in their schools. Accommodations and modifications are provided when needed which supports the students in the learning environment.”

“It is also important to note that the funding levels for special ed students is far less than the actual expense of doing so, and the OPSB has done a very good job of providing the appropriate services while being seriously underfunded in this area. We have also intervened in the lawsuit on this issue in order to have a voice for the resolution of any inadequacies in OPSB and RSD charter schools.”

Robichaux also obliquely touched upon the redistricting controversy that overtook the school board some months ago, and pitted him against his usual ally Brett Bonin. “There were several proposed re-districting plans. The plan that passed favored certain board members and purposely was designed to impede other members’ ability to get re-elected. I was in favor of a plan that was fair to all members, not just a select few.”

As to whether Orleanians will we see a NOCCA Prep back in operation in the next four years, the Board President said with excitement, “The current plan is for NOCCA to become a full high school in the next year or two. In addition, the Homer Plessy Charter School has been authorized by the OPSB for that neighborhood. The Plessy School has, as part of its mission, an arts-based curriculum, and it is their desire to be a feeder school for the New NOCCA high school.”

This article was originally published in the October 15, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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