The fight over how to equitably fund public education in New Orleans is turning into another test of a local board that’s been striving for more than a decade to win back its credibility and its role in governing the city’s schools.
The Orleans Parish School Board did not expect to end up in the middle of this brawl, which centers on how many dollars to assign schools for students with disabilities, versus those labeled as “gifted and talented.”
The state law that set the whole dispute in motion does not explicitly mention a role for the OPSB, and most school leaders expected state officials in Baton Rouge to have the final say.
But legal complications have landed the board and its new superintendent in the driver’s seat — without directions. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted on a kind of framework for a new funding scheme last week, but it unexpectedly left it up to local officials to sort out the crucial specifics.
“Frankly, we were all kind of taken aback when BESE kicked this down to us,” said Seth Bloom, now in his second year as the Orleans board’s president.
Bloom said opinions on the seven-member board are divided about what the panel is required or allowed to do at this point, and the board has brought in extra legal advisers to help sort it out.
The topic did not appear on the agenda for OPSB committee meetings Thursday; it’s unclear if it will come up during a full board meeting next week.
In the meantime, the city’s principals are watching anxiously to see how the board and its superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., decide to proceed.
Leaders representing 90 percent of the city’s public schools are pushing for adoption of a formula approved last month by a local working group created by the Legislature. As schools that often educate large numbers of students with special needs, they are demanding a funding method that covers a bigger chunk of the costs involved in educating those pupils.
“It’s been a grossly unfair system for the last 10 years,” said Jay Altman, the head of a charter school group called FirstLine Schools that operates five open-enrollment campuses.
The city’s selective magnet schools — at least some of them — are fighting a lonely battle on the other side of this debate, but they are ready to go to court, and they’ve got hundreds of parents who could be mobilized to put pressure on the board members in their voting districts.
They stand to lose as much as $170 per student next year under the working group’s formula. That’s in part because they don’t enroll as many students with severe disabilities, and, in part, because they would get fewer extra dollars for gifted students.
James Brown, an attorney for Lusher Charter School who also was retained by Lake Forest Charter Elementary School to pursue a legal challenge, sent a letter last week telling OPSB members that they had landed in a “tangled web of legal problems.”
Brown’s letter argues that nothing in the law that set up the working group, known as Act 467, allowed BESE to refer the group’s formula to the OPSB for implementation. It says that even if the local board could approve the formula, that would violate the charter contracts that Lusher and Lake Forest operate under, which stipulate that they will receive funding according to the formula that applies to charter schools statewide.
All that aside, there is a question of whether OPSB members would have to vote on the formula at a public meeting or whether the superintendent can simply implement it on his own.
Lewis, who has been on the job for a year, declined an interview and released a statement saying, “We, the OPSB administration, recognize that the funding formula is a trending topic, and we are working to finalize our next steps.” He promised an update Friday.
Even if there are legal barriers and lobbying efforts by the magnet schools, Lewis also will be under intense pressure to implement the new formula somehow.
He has a mandate from his board to unify the city’s two separate school systems. A majority of the city’s open-enrollment schools still fall under the state-run Recovery School District, the governing body for most city schools since Hurricane Katrina.
Many of those schools’ officials acknowledge that after more than a decade, the era of state control in New Orleans should be drawing to a close. But a funding formula they find unfair would be a serious deterrent to coming back under the OPSB. And since they are all independent charter schools, the decision is up to them.
In the RSD, schools have been operating for years under a tiered system that steps up funding based on the specific needs of students. Schools under the OPSB get a much less generous subsidy to cover those costs. The proposed formula that is — or is not — now before the OPSB would unify the city under something close to the RSD’s approach.
On top of that, most of the good-government and nonprofit groups in the city that typically take positions on education issues are behind that approach.
Erika McConduit-Diggs, head of the local Urban League chapter, told BESE members last week that she has a child attending Lusher but stands behind a formula that will shift funding to other schools, calling it “for the good of the whole.”