In his first big move on the job, Henderson Lewis Jr., the new superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, is preparing to roll out the initial phase of a district reorganization plan, including a new office hierarchy and a significant number of layoffs.
Lewis, who was hired in March, has talked openly about the likelihood that he would trim positions in order to get more tax dollars to schools, rather than central-office support staff. But he has yet to release details. He is scheduled to present his plans to the board during committee meetings Thursday.
In a brief interview, Lewis said the number of potential layoffs cited in a letter circulated by a local activist group, Justice and Beyond, is not accurate. The group is warning that 85 jobs may be on the chopping block — which would leave about 15 people running the district — but Lewis said the real figure probably won’t exceed 25.
He also said the district will advertise for a number of new positions over the next few months, and would invite employees whose jobs are being eliminated to apply for new roles.
“It’s a very difficult time,” Lewis acknowledged, but added that the central office staff needed to better “reflect the type of school district that we have.”
The type of district that Lewis runs is both unusual and in flux. Having lost control of most city schools after Hurricane Katrina, the School Board now oversees a district of six traditional campuses and more than a dozen independent charter schools. But Lewis hopes to lure back the schools that are doing well enough academically under the state-run Recovery School District that they can choose to return.
His retooling of the central office will be aimed in part at making sure the district is ready to manage a larger body of independent charters. Right now, the RSD still handles some of the most important central-office functions for the whole city.
It administers the central enrollment system, for instance, and runs expulsion hearings. Lewis has said that he wants to transition those jobs back to the board.
In the meantime, he is already running into flak from the school system’s more traditional-minded critics, who see the RSD takeover as a disaster and charter schools as suspicious at best.
Pat Bryant, one of the founders of Justice and Beyond, put out a letter this week warning that Lewis is trying to create an “all-charter” district without actually chartering the city’s few remaining traditional schools. He cited rumors that Lewis might lay off 85 employees — more or less everyone whose job isn’t federally funded — and shift the money to the district’s charters.
“This action would create the nation’s first all charter school system and would also be contrary to the desire of many parents to have their children attend high quality schools close to home whose leadership is accountable to an elected body,” Bryant wrote.
Lewis said he does not plan to lay off 85 people, but he has made no secret of his intention to run the few remaining traditional schools much like charters. He said as much in a recent interview, stressing the need to give principals the leeway to run their own buildings.
Charter school proponents are likely to see belt-tightening at the central office as a good thing. Part of the idea behind the turn toward charters in New Orleans was to give each school or group of schools control over its own budget, with a much smaller slice of per-pupil funding held back for central-office functions.