Alumni gather to salute McDonogh 35’s new building, key to its return to longtime academic excellence _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--McDonogh 35 students are seen during break from class at a dedication of the school's new 2015 campus on Cadillac Drive in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

The Orleans Parish school district’s plan to hire outside groups to run McDonogh 35 Senior High School is on hold after the district rejected all the applicants and has started looking for an administrator to oversee the school instead.

The district had a two-part plan to phase out the school over three years and, in the meantime, start up another school with the same name, mascot and colors.

At a committee meeting on Tuesday, Chief Strategy Officer Colleston Morgan Jr. said none of the applicants met the district’s standards.

The only applicant for the long-term contract to run a new school, Smothers Academy, was cited Tuesday by the state for violating the state's nepotism policy.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. referred to the proud history of McDonogh 35, the first high school for African-Americans in Louisiana.

He said the district is “dedicated to restoring that legacy, and we will not be bringing any proposal to this school board” that doesn’t meet its standards.

“The school will remain open and public forever,” he said. “McDonogh 35, the name and everything else, will remain the same.”

McDonogh 35 Alumni Association Vice President Gertrude Ivory said the association reviewed the proposals and agreed with the superintendent.

“We found that they fell short of the criteria in the (request for proposals) and the direction we would like to see McDonogh 35 go,” Ivory said.

Morgan said the Orleans Parish School Board will run McDonogh 35 next year. It has not lifted its restriction on incoming students, he said, so the school will serve sophomores through seniors.

The district has posted an opening for an “executive director,” who would report to Lewis, to run McDonogh 35. The applications are due Sunday, and the district wants the person to start May 1.

That job is temporary and will run through June 2019, according to a job description posted on the district’s website.

The D-rated school has struggled since Hurricane Katrina, when its longtime admissions requirements were dropped.

“It is clear that a change is needed,” Lewis said in February. “Our kids need 35 to be what it used to be. So the path to success is to provide a fresh start to a new operator.”

The district at that time outlined its plan to hire someone to operate the school through a “non-charter contract.” That could have allowed the school to reinstate admissions requirements. Louisiana’s charter school law allows admissions requirements only for schools that specialize in a certain subject area, such as arts or sciences.

An outside contractor would have run the school for three years, phasing it out as each class graduated, while a different contractor created the new school to take its place.

The district’s plan came as its other three traditional schools close and convert to charters this summer, leaving McDonogh 35 as the only school directly run by the school district.

Last year, a plan to convert all the remaining traditional schools to charters under a single organization failed.

Two groups applied to run McDonogh 35 in the short term. Smothers Academy Inc., which runs an F-rated charter school in Jefferson, was the sole applicant to start a new McDonogh 35. It wanted to reinstate admissions requirements.

After Smothers applied, education consultant Peter Cook wrote about what he called “red flags” at its Jefferson school, including a troubling audit. Cook noted that Smothers’ founder appeared to employ his brother, which could violate state ethics law.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Education cited Smothers for violating its rules against employing family members.

Nepotism cases against leaders of two New Orleans charter schools have dragged on for years.

Lewis said groups can apply to convert McDonogh 35 to a charter this fall. He did not rule out pursuing a management contract again, but said right now he’s focused on getting the school staffed and ready for students in the fall.

This fall, Morgan said, the district plans to present “a full plan for the freshman academy for the 2019-2020 school year.”