A Kenner charter school parent had her microphone cut off at a Jefferson Parish School Board meeting this week after accusing a board member and the district’s liaison to charter schools of chatting in a coffee shop about manipulating student-population data to hurt the school’s efforts to have its charter renewed.
Emily Fulgham-Clay also accused School Board member Marion “Coach” Bonura and charter liaison Jeannine Prejean of celebrating at the prospect of Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy’s potential demise.
Prejean and Bonura deny they mentioned any such thing when they and Clay were at a Starbucks in Kenner earlier this month. But Clay is sticking by her account, saying it illustrates why the Kenner Discovery community is suspicious of some of those who oversee the popular school.
Before Clay spoke at Thursday night’s School Board meeting in Gretna, the Jefferson Parish Council and Kenner City Council passed resolutions expressing support for Kenner Discovery’s charter renewal and expansion plans.
Council members said they drafted those measures after Head of School Patty Glaser received phone calls warning that some School Board members might attempt to strip away her school’s charter and block its ambitions to expand.
Clay, an assistant English professor at Delgado Community College, said she was grading papers the morning of March 7 at a Starbucks near Kenner Discovery — which her two children attend — when Bonura and Prejean walked in and sat down near her.
Clay, 35, told the School Board that Bonura and Prejean didn’t wait long before discussing Kenner Discovery in “a very negative way,” talking about how the school might not meet its required percentage of at-risk students and therefore might lose its charter, which is up for renewal in the 2017-18 academic year.
Then, Clay claimed, Prejean said to Bonura, “You simply give me the data, and I will make it say what you want me to make it say.”
Clay’s microphone was shut off at that point, but she continued speaking, alleging that Bonura’s reply to Prejean was, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
Clay added, “I am incredibly angry as a citizen — as a parent at this school — that a board member would have this discussion.”
Applause from the audience drowned out other remarks Clay delivered before she sat down.
School Board member Mark Morgan moved the meeting along to other matters after telling Clay, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Clay, reached by phone Friday, said she did not record the conversation between Prejean and Bonura, to whom she introduced herself before they left the Starbucks. But she provided a photograph she snapped of the pair as well as a copy of a letter she sent to Glaser outlining her version of events.
“I couldn’t believe they were so brazen to have that meeting right next to the school and talk about skewing numbers in public,” Clay said. “It was insane.”
While Bonura acknowledged that he and Prejean had met within earshot of Clay shortly after touring Kenner Discovery, he said she wholly misunderstood the conversation.
Bonura said he met with Prejean, who is new to her role, to hear how she planned to do her job and assure her he would do all he could to support her.
“That’s why they don’t permit hearsay in a court of law. That was nothing but hearsay,” Bonura said Friday. “My intentions were all to help Ms. Prejean get started on her new job. That was it.”
Prejean did not respond to a request for comment, but the school system issued a statement on her behalf denying Clay’s allegations.
For at least the past several weeks, there has been tension between Bonura and Kenner Discovery, which began the year with 800 students in prekindergarten to eighth grade.
The A-rated charter with more than 1,000 students on its waiting list hoped to one day build a high school on a tract of land at Loyola and Vintage drives in Kenner. But in early February, Bonura sponsored a measure — narrowly approved by the School Board — designating that land as the future home of Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies.
However, Bonura — whose son is a sports coach at Haynes — bristled at being accused of “trying to harm” Kenner Discovery.
He said Haynes’ campus in Old Metairie is outdated and cramped and that he has cast votes favorable to Kenner Discovery, such as when he supported letting the school temporarily use a Jefferson Highway facility while it installed new classrooms at its main campus on Maine Avenue.
Still, during an interview earlier in the week, Bonura suggested that members of the Kenner and Jefferson councils supporting Kenner Discovery might be nervous that school district officials and attorneys recently met with a task force dedicated to ensuring that all of the parish’s public schools are sufficiently racially integrated under the terms of an agreement resulting from earlier federal oversight.
Glaser declined Friday to address Clay’s allegations against Bonura.
She did say, though, that Kenner Discovery expects to be within a half-point of its targeted 33 percent black student population at the start of next school year. It also expects to meet its targeted at-risk student population of 76 percent soon after the school year begins, Glaser said.