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In this file photo, Destiny Williams, a first-grader at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in New Orleans, tests the hovercraft she made from a compact disc, a balloon and a plastic bottle top. Benjamin Franklin Elementary is one of five schools ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization applied to turn into charter schools before pulling its application April 19. 

Photo provided by STEM NOLA

Two elementary school principals involved in a failed bid during the spring to convert all of New Orleans’ remaining traditional schools to charters have filed the paperwork to make a second attempt. 

Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology are two of the last four district-run schools in Orleans Parish. The rest are charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.

The latest development means New Orleans could again be on its way to becoming the first big city in the country that has entirely charter schools.

“We are interested in chartering in order to preserve the Benjamin Franklin way in this impending all-charter district,” Franklin Principal Charlotte Matthew said in an email.

One of the four remaining traditional schools, Mahalia Jackson Elementary, is slated to close next spring. That would leave just one, and there’s another application round later this school year.

This spring, Franklin and Bethune were part of a failed bid by a would-be charter operator, made up of principals and central-office staff, to take over the five traditional schools then under the Orleans Parish School Board. The group, ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization, withdrew its application after receiving a poor review.

The involvement of central-office employees in ExCEED’s application raised questions of conflicts of interest. In fact, the person who oversaw the school district’s traditional schools quit her job to head ExCEED. This summer, the state ethics board ruled she could take a job with the school district again.

The ExCEED group also included Matthew and Bethune Principal Mary Haynes-Smith. The conflict-of-interest issues related to the central-office employees don’t apply to principals because they wouldn’t be involved in the district’s recommendation on whether to award the group a charter.

Ingrid Thomas has first- and third-graders at Franklin, often called "Baby Ben," in contrast to Benjamin Franklin High School. She plans to enroll her toddler this year in the school's pre-K program.

Thomas was critical of Matthew’s endorsement of the ExCEED bid, and she continues to worry.

“I just don’t have confidence that she will entertain feedback she doesn’t want to hear because she didn’t last year,” she said.

She said Matthew “should poll parents to see if (making the school a charter) is something the school community wants.”

In the past, the school district required parents and staff to vote on charter conversions. That is no longer a requirement.

The principals’ interest in chartering their schools is not a complete surprise.

Most district-run schools in the city that have converted to charters did so under the leadership of their principals.

Also, the remaining charter schools that answer to the state-run Recovery School District are scheduled to return to the authority of the Orleans Parish School Board next year. To prepare for the influx of new schools, the Orleans school district is setting itself up more as an organization that monitors charters rather than one that runs schools itself.

As ExCEED was working on its bid to take over the direct-run schools, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. advocated for turning them into charters.

He said the schools would receive more money from the school district if they became charters. Charter schools do receive a higher per-pupil allotment than traditional schools, but they also must pay for transportation, human resources and other services that are typically handled by a central school district.

Matthew, who has led schools in New Orleans for 20 years, reserved the name Legacy of Excellence Inc. on July 19. She registered the nonprofit with the state Monday, the deadline to submit letters of interest to open new schools or take over existing ones.

Legacy of Excellence shares two board members with the defunct ExCEED: Tommie Vassel and Yvette Alexis. Vassel, a former Orleans Parish School Board member who is running for mayor, is described as a Franklin parent.

The third board member listed is Angela Wilklow, a social worker.

Nonprofits must have three board members to submit an application and seven to sign a charter.

The state also requires charter applicants to have the support of three licensed teachers. Baby Ben’s assistant principals Patrice Joseph and Nichelle Logan signed on, along with teacher Tradonya Dominigue.

Haynes-Smith, Bethune’s principal, has been an elementary school principal since 1994 and has worked for the Orleans Parish school district since 1987.

Her letter of interest says the charter organization would be called Significant Educators. 

Haynes-Smith didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Her letter names three licensed teachers who were employed at Bethune last year: Amanda Broussard, Gwendolyn Dupree and Treneice Scott.

That letter also lists six board members: Melrose Biagas, Frank Williams, Lisa Bierria, Suzette Bagneris, Leslie Garibaldi and Antoinette Boissiere.

During last spring’s failed charter drive, some families demanded the traditional schools remain traditional. Thomas was one of them.

“I still don’t think we need to have an all-charter district,” she said. “I kind of still have a hard time wrapping my head around how these are public entities and an individual like (Matthew, the principal) can apply to take over a public entity.” 

Other parents in the city support charters because they have autonomy to select their teachers and set their curriculum.