The Jefferson Parish School Board on Wednesday approved an agreement to allow a California company to take over Woodmere Elementary School in Harvey. It’s the first time the board will bring in a charter operator in an effort to turn around a chronically underperforming school.
The issue drew impassioned arguments from residents and parents on both sides, with those in favor of the takeover arguing that nothing else could improve the school while opponents suggested the decision was racially motivated.
The board voted 8-1 in favor of approving the charter operator, with only Cedric Floyd opposed.
Floyd not only spoke against the decision during the board’s public meeting but could be heard loudly arguing about the proposal in a closed-door executive session while the board discussed whether the decision would impact the district’s desegregation order. That argument apparently prompted school administrators to call in a Jefferson Parish deputy, though he took no action other than monitoring the rest of the meeting.
Under the agreement, Celerity, which runs schools in three other states, will take over the operation of Woodmere. Company officials said they will keep the school open to all students who currently attend it and offer jobs to the teachers now at the school.
Vielka McFarlane, the company’s chief executive officer, said Celerity has a history of working with “students in some of the most historically challenged situations in America.”
“We will ensure the students receive the best possible education to prepare them for college or careers,” McFarlane said.
Woodmere has been one of the lowest-performing schools in the parish, with 60 percent of its students failing to meet state standards, school district Chief Academic Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams said.
“This is an intervention, an intervention is something you put in place when you care about someone,” Blouin-Williams said.
Some community members argued the school was improving and should be given time to succeed without being turned over to a charter operator.
Community member Brenda Williams said the school should not be turned over to a company with no track record in Louisiana and suggested Woodmere was being singled out. “Surely it is not because Woodmere is the only school that is not meeting state standards,” she said.
Others, however, said they saw a charter operator as the only way to turn around their children’s school.
Bobby Lemoine, whose daughters attend Woodmere, said one of his children has not received the help that she needed to get up to grade level and that he welcomed Celerity.
“This is a failing school that has a history of failing, and I’m sorry but a D is not an improvement,” Lemoine said.
Board member Ray St. Pierre said he is typically opposed to charter schools but that the specifics of the Celerity deal gave him confidence.
“It’ll be the same students, same testing program; student scores are still going to count in our school system,” St. Pierre said. “All those things are the same; they’ll be working with the same people.”
Floyd, echoing comments by several residents who spoke at the meeting, argued that racial motivations played a role in the decision to convert Woodmere — whose student body consists almost entirely of minorities — to a charter.
“They wouldn’t pull this kind of stuff in Metairie. They’re doing it because it’s a black subdivision,” Floyd said.
Floyd also argued the decision could violate the desegregation order that covers the parish school system because, he said, a charter would pay its employees less and thus end up with less-experienced teachers. Other School Board members said they had been advised that would not be the case.
The board also approved a budget and millages for the coming year.
The system’s $458 million budget, which includes pay raises for school employees, was approved by an 8-1 vote, with Floyd opposed.
Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch spoke against the budget, saying that the $850,000 the system is spending on “temporary workers” should go toward hiring those employees full time.
That budget will be funded in part through 22.91 mills of property taxes. Those rates were also approved by the board.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.