Many New Orleans school leaders back new funding formula, setting up clash ahead of BESE vote _lowres

 

Under threat from potential lawsuits, state officials punted Thursday on a controversial new funding formula for public schools in New Orleans.

It means an already wrenching debate over how to allocate tax dollars for students with special needs and those designated as “gifted and talented” is likely to shift to the local school board in New Orleans and potentially drag on for weeks.

With millions of dollars at stake, the debate has pitted the city’s open-enrollment schools, which tend to enroll larger numbers of students with disabilities, against highly ranked magnet schools like Lusher Charter School and Ben Franklin High School, which stand to lose some of the money they receive for gifted students.

On Thursday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education stopped short of approving a formula drawn up by a local working group of school leaders and others.

Instead, a BESE committee unanimously approved only a list of the categories of students — special needs, gifted and talented, over-age and so on — that require separate levels of funding, leaving it to local officials to sort out how much money is needed for each. A vote of the full board is expected Friday.

The move, which obviously caught some school leaders off guard, appeared to be a careful maneuver to avoid certain legal pitfalls that could derail a process that’s been grinding on for months.

In a tense back-and-forth, state Education Superintendent John White and an attorney for Lusher sparred over the details of Louisiana’s constitution, more or less openly acknowledging that the fight is likely to end up in court.

At one point, White said the issue might “not be worth debating without a judge present” but plunged in anyway.

The attorney, James Brown, complained that “the proposal that has come before this committee has ripped this community apart.”

The legal questions involved are complex, having to do with whether the state constitution prohibits BESE from spelling out how a local district divvies up tax dollars among schools or actually compels the board to do so — or simply contradicts itself.

The aim of the new formula is to boost the number of dollars going to schools that enroll more students with special needs — who often require expensive services — and to apply one formula to all of the city’s schools. A law passed by the Legislature last year created the task force that drew up the formula.

What that group approved would increase the amount of per-pupil funding based on students’ disabilities and the services they require, creating five tiers. There are still some extra dollars for gifted students but not as many as the city’s magnet schools got under the formula that applied to them this year.

In part, the new formula is supposed to ease a return to local control for schools taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina. Schools under the state-run Recovery School District have been operating under a similar tiered approach for years. Schools under the Orleans Parish School Board operate under a formula that’s not as generous for students with disabilities.

The question is whether BESE has the authority to spell all this out for a local school district.

Brown, Lusher’s attorney, argued that the board actually does have such authority and exercises it every year when it approves the formula that Louisiana uses to dole out state tax dollars, known as the Minimum Foundation Program. The MFP is weighted to give districts more dollars based on the number of special-needs students they enroll, among other factors.

Brown argued that spelling out a separate formula for schools in New Orleans would run afoul of BESE’s constitutional responsibility to assign one MFP formula for the whole state.

White and other officials say the new formula drawn up by the local working group is something separate from the MFP and a necessary complement to it in a city where public schools are uniquely decentralized.

They concede that state funding is already weighted for special needs but say local districts have the legal authority to divvy up the money among schools however they see fit.

In fact, they argue it’s a good thing for districts to have that flexibility, given how needs often vary from campus to campus. One school might have a special-needs student who requires only speech therapy, while another has a student with severe autism.

The trouble in New Orleans is that nearly every school operates as an independent charter school. And that means they receive funding directly, so there’s no central mechanism to shift dollars as needed.

By this interpretation, the working group’s formula performs a different function than the MFP, dividing money among schools rather than districts.

That raised another complication, however, which appeared to catch state officials off guard. White pointed out Thursday that BESE may not have the legal authority to decide how many dollars go to which school, citing a line in the state constitution that keeps the board from interfering in the “business affairs” of a local district.

That’s likely why the board stopped short of approving the specific dollar amounts in the working group’s formula for each type of child.

Kira Orange Jones, who represents most of Orleans Parish on the board, had to insert an amendment to the motion clarifying that the board was acting only to set up the different categories of students.

School leaders clearly expected BESE to approve the whole formula, and officials had not previously mentioned that the Orleans Parish School Board might play a role in approving the final sums.

In any case, Lusher’s attorney pushed back against White’s interpretation of the law. He said the relevant code actually stipulates that BESE “take steps” to make sure districts are distributing dollars to schools based on the MFP formula, including the extra dollars assigned for special-needs students.

“What’s happened in the past may or may not be correct,” Brown said, but the law is “clear as horseradish.”

Legal issues aside, Thursday’s meeting put long-standing tensions among the city’s public schools on unusually stark display.

School leaders told the board about children who require thousands of extra dollars to educate. In halting English, students pleaded for the extra funding for so-called English-language learners included under the new formula.

And leaders at the city’s magnet schools strove to fend off the impression that they enroll only privileged students, pointing out they also take on students with special needs and provide extra services required by law for gifted students.

Latoye Brown, interim principal at the selective Audubon Charter School, ran through a litany of extra services her school provides and said the debate has been needlessly divisive. “Our city and our state have to do a better job of funding education for all children,” she said.

From the opposite camp, Rhonda Dale, principal at the open-enrollment Sci Academy, told board members about a student she called Robert who is confined to a wheelchair and arrived at the school unable to speak. Thanks to an elaborate set of services, she said, he can now greet her each morning, but those services run the school between $30,000 and $60,000 a year.

“This issue has not ripped our community apart,” Dale said. “In many ways, it has united us, except for a small number of schools that have been getting more than their fair share for some time.”