New Orleans — Several more independent charter school leaders soon will find themselves facing a question that others, including Sophie B. Wright Charter School’s principal, have been grappling with for more than a year: Should we move back under the wing of the Orleans Parish School Board?
If even one of the 14 schools expected to be eligible shifts back to the board, it would mark both an academic victory as well as a sign of faith in the previously derided School Board. Like most New Orleans public schools, Wright was taken over by the state’s Recovery School District immediately after the hurricane, part of a massive effort to improve failing schools.
As of last October, Wright and seven other campuses had improved their performance enough to leave the Recovery School District, which was always envisioned as temporary oversight for subpar schools. None of them did.
School Board officials project that six more charter schools will be eligible when annual scores are released at the end of the month. But that doesn’t mean they’re any more likely to jump from state oversight to the Orleans Parish School Board, Wright Principal Sharon Clark said.
That’s because they’d have to give up some degree of autonomy — and some amount of money. And then there’s the intangible concern about being associated with a board that at one time was mired in mismanagement, corruption and infighting.
Charters authorized by the Recovery School District or by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are considered their own school districts — on par with the Orleans Parish School Board itself.
Their federal grant dollars flow directly to them.
Even more off-putting to some charters, the Orleans Parish School Board would take a percentage of any federal money that flows through its central office.
“I can go get any grant that I want and sign off on it, with my board, and that’s it,” Clark said. “You can’t do that” at schools that answer to the parish school board, she said.
Mickey Landry, executive director of the three-school Choice Foundation network, is facing the same dilemma for the first time this year. He said he’s not eager to be under a governance model that reduces autonomy.
Ditto for Jonathan Bertsch, the director of advocacy for KIPP New Orleans’ nine charter schools, three of which were eligible last year to return. KIPP schools are open to discussing a return to the School Board, but cash is tight enough without losing money to the central office bureaucracy, Bertsch said. Another KIPP school is expected to be eligible this year.
The initial decision on whether to move back to the school board rests solely with the governing board of the charter school. It’s up to each charter board to decide whether to involve its parents and faculty in reaching a conclusion. Then, the state and parish school boards must agree.
Eligible schools will have until Dec. 1 to decide.
There is nothing underhanded about the cut of government grants that the school board takes for handling compliance paperwork and other indirect costs, board officials point out. The amount — near 9 percent this year — is capped by the state, and strict guidelines dictate how it can be spent. Paying fines is a prohibited use, for example; so are entertainment expenses.
In fact, charters set aside a portion of government grants to cover compliance costs, too — but smaller charter networks or single campuses frequently use that percentage to pay part of the salary of an administrator who handles other tasks. The cap is lower, at 7 percent.
Dollars aside, there’s also a trust issue.
“You want to work with a governing entity that is fair and that holds you accountable,” said Neerav Kingsland, director of New Schools for New Orleans, a charter school support organization. “And you need to trust that the rules of the game are fair, so to speak.”
School board officials don’t deny that trust was a casualty of the pre-Katrina school system meltdown. The board was bankrupt; $70 million in government grants had gone missing and the FBI saw fit to set up shop within the central office.
But that was then, current school board members say. As signs of improvement, board members note the district’s improved bond rating and the recent decision by the federal government to lift the district’s designation as an entity at “high risk” of mismanagement.
Also, charter schools should look at their overall compliance costs, said Kathleen Padian, the system’s deputy superintendent of charter schools. They may find it’s actually cheaper to task the School Board with grant management, she said.
“I think it would be an interesting study to see how many staff members they dedicate” to compliance, she said. It’s one thing if you have four or five or six schools, and you pay for one person to do it for all of them, Padian said, “but if you are at one school, I don’t see how it’s cost effective.”
The federal grants in question typically cover services for students with special needs or those whose backgrounds involve poverty or other factors that put students at risk of poor performance. At schools with high populations of special-ed or low-income students, the grants can be a significant part of the annual budget.
The School Board’s argument in favor of its higher administrative cost hinges on professionalism and economies of scale that come with handling similar paperwork for several schools at once.
School leaders debating whether to return to governance by the Orleans Parish School Board question whether the benefit of having the School Board do compliance is all that great.
“Someone inside the school is going to have to track the data, gather the data and send a report to Orleans Parish, anyway, so what’s the difference between doing that and sending a report to the federal government?” Mickey Landry said. “Why give up your autonomous status to make that work?”
Some charter schools also doubt they’ll realize the cost savings that Padian touts as a reason to yield compliance to a central office, compared with what they’d lose.
Bertsch at KIPP estimates that the four schools eligible to join the Orleans Parish School Board would have seen the loss last year of $60,000 in federal money available for their special-education needs. And of course KIPP would still need a grant manager to handle compliance for the schools that are ineligible to leave the Recovery School District.
For Wright, the financial hit to its special-ed programming under the School Board’s governance would be much smaller — slightly more than $8,000, based on the school’s budget this year.
For Clark, who went nose-to-nose with the School Board last year in a fight to get FEMA repair money freed up for her school, the overriding issue is trust. She wonders if the School Board will manage an added slice of compliance money properly and distribute those grants promptly.
Clark said she sees the board’s raucous public meetings and the bitter schisms among members as a throwback to the old order, one that leaves her with questions about the board’s administrative capacity.
“We’re concerned about the board, the amount of power and politics that’s played by board members,” she said. “We still hear some schools get more then other schools in Orleans Parish, and some schools have to fight for certain things. When you hear that, it just reminds you of how it used to be.
“And I don’t want to subject these kids and these teachers back to that culture and that environment.”
This story is published in cooperation with the Internet news site The Lens.