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Schoolyard Brawl

The infighting that marked education decisions for Orleans Parish schools before Katrina hasn’t disappeared; it has shifted.

The new power struggle is between the Orleans Parish School Board and its charters and, to a lesser extent, the Recovery School District and its charters. The conflict is about money and accountability, issues that are likely to make their way to the Legislature in April.

Charter schools are semi-autonomous and their leaders are able to spend their budget resources as they wish. Nevertheless, they are still very much dependent on their local or state chartering agency to forward money due them from the state Minimum Foundation Formula or federal grants. If money is withheld, the financial difference creates budgeting headaches for the schools. They must pay their own employees and other expenses. 

This financial trickle-down effect makes the charters uneasy about their future, says Brian Riedlinger, chief executive officer of the Algiers Charter School Association, “The charters are in trouble because they are in a state of flux.”

As a consequence, some charters are banding together to lobby the Legislature for more protection but a specific agenda hasn’t been finalized. This movement to circle the wagons is mostly the result of recent contentious meetings with the Orleans Parish School Board. Because there isn’t enough money to go around, administrators tend to fight over it.

“Louisiana doesn’t fund its schools well – never has,” Riedlinger says. “When there’s not enough pie for everyone to get to a piece, it’s hard for people to not scramble for their piece.”

Conflicts between the charters and the school board have centered on school quality assessments and decisions by the board to withhold money that charter administrators believed should have been forwarded to their schools. Charter administrators were outraged, for example, when the board initially decided to keep all of a recent $10 million federal grant. After cries of foul play, the board relented and passed along 30 percent of the grant money to the charters under its jurisdiction. That compromise however, didn’t satisfy school administrators who had hoped for more. 

Riedlinger says that scuffle came with threats by the school board to charge each charter school a hefty fee per child for services the board provides. Each school now receives roughly $7,000 per child, he says, which is barely enough to cover expenses. If the school board carried out its threat to reduce that amount by 20 percent, “We wouldn’t make it financially,” he says.

Some charter administrators believe the board wants the charter schools to fail, he says. That is a charge board members deny. 

“That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” says former School Board President Phyllis Landrieu. “The truth is there are limited resources and they have a lot assets they don’t appreciate.”

The charters get rent-free facilities, Landrieu says, and the school board is responsible for the cost of renovation and maintenance. Some of the expenses are covered by FEMA but not all. “We cannot be reckless with our spending,” she says.  
The present school board also is burdened by the $200 million debt accumulated by prior school boards, Landrieu says. “Who is going to pay that? These are issues we need to take to the Legislature.”  

So far the school board hasn’t charged charters for any part of the expenses it incurs on the schools’ behalf, nor has it passed on any of its other financial burdens, she says. 

Riedlinger also complains that the Recovery School District sometimes changes budget projections per child one or more times a year, making it difficult for RSD charters to plan for the future. Even a few dollars more or less per child, he says, means the difference between hiring and firing teachers.   

Some charters are in financial trouble because they haven’t attracted enough students in an educational landscape that isn’t as different as it appears, says Lourdes Moran, also a member of the school board. The highest demand is still for desirable schools, such as Lusher, and many parents who can’t get their children in them are still turning to private and parochial schools as alternatives. With the return rate of students slowing down, Moran says each charter must carve out its niche and prove itself to a wider audience to stay alive.

“It is still early,” she says. “I think by the end of the year, we will see which ones will make it.”

In this patched up, post-Katrina landscape of charter and traditional schools divided into two school systems – one run by the school board and one by the state’s Recovery District – such squabbles are inevitable, officials say. Adjustments are to be expected.       

In fact, many states that led the charter movement in the 1990s are now reevaluating their charter schools. Many national newspaper editorials also are calling for government leaders to slow down the expansion of charters because of widespread financial and academic deficiencies.

In Minnesota, a 2003 report by a legislative officer found that one quarter of the state’s charter schools had financial problems.

The Georgia Legislature is considering legislation to strengthen state control over charters because of spotty performance.

In Ohio, the governor has initiated a campaign against all 328 charters because more than half have been given failing grades. Ohio state department officials are also trying to recover more than $1.5 million in unaccounted for charter school aid.
These states have learned some lessons the hard way. Louisiana officials should study them and use them to prevent the same problems from happening here.

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