New Orleans College Prep founder Ben Kleban will leave the charter school organization before the end of the year to avoid a conflict of interest when his term on the Orleans Parish School Board begins in 2017, but in the meantime he plans to focus in part on adding another school to the organization’s portfolio.
Kleban won the District 5 seat on the School Board last week when his only opponent, Eldon Anderson, withdrew from the race. The incumbent, Seth Bloom, had declined to run for re-election.
Before he joins the School Board, Kleban intends to resign from New Orleans College Prep to avoid any conflicts of interest, he said Thursday. While College Prep remains within the Recovery School District, it and all other RSD schools will be moving to OPSB governance over the next three years.
As a member of the parish School Board, many of the policies that Kleban will help decide will have a direct impact on New Orleans College Prep — which could present ethical problems if he were still employed there.
“There is the potential I would be asked to vote on something that would affect the interest of an organization I’m leading,” Kleban said. “I could find myself trying to get a ruling from the Ethics Board on an ongoing basis. It’s enough of a gray area that I’d rather keep it clean and above board.”
On Thursday, the board of New Orleans College Prep approved a “transition plan” for Kleban. Starting this week, he will work only a 30-hour week — 10 hours a day, Monday through Wednesday — and his $155,000 salary will be reduced by 25 percent, according to the plan. He will leave the position no later than Jan. 1, when his OPSB term begins.
“Our loss is the city’s gain,” College Prep board Chairman Peter Harding said.
Before he leaves, Kleban will primarily focus on several specific projects, he told the board:
- Expanding the network’s capacity through the acquisition of another elementary/middle school.
- Creating a “large early learning center” at the Hoffman satellite campus.
- Finalizing plans for the Walter L. Cohen School construction.
- Working with Vanessa Douyon on development tasks such as fundraising, grant-writing and coaching.
A major goal of New Orleans College Prep is to educate students from their first school experience — through the proposed early childhood center — through high school at the Cohen campus.
However, Cohen has struggled to recruit the 175 ninth-grade students it can hold every year, in part because College Prep’s two elementary schools, Crocker and Sylvanie Williams, are still growing toward the eighth grade.
Even when Crocker and Sylvanie Williams have filled out their eighth-grade classes, however, Kleban said he still expects them to send only about 50 students per year each to Cohen — indicating the need for a third elementary school feeding into Cohen. According to Kleban’s plan, College Prep can acquire that third school through either a “turnaround” or a merger with another existing school.
As he explores that possibility, Kleban said, College Prep will be looking strongly at options within the same Uptown/Central City area as its other schools. The reasons are partly to keep the logistics simple, he said, but also strongly philosophical, as he believes the College Prep network has come to serve as a standard-bearer for public education in Central City.
“We are really rooted in Central City and the surrounding neighborhoods,” Kleban said. “We do believe in a future where we have neighborhood schools.”
As Kleban departs, the College Prep network will continue to be led by its two co-CEOs, Natalie Kaharick and Andy Parker. Parker, who has a 27-year career in public education, fills the role of chief academic officer, focusing on school performance and issues relating to students and faculty, while Kaharick handles operations, facilities, finances, marketing and other tasks related to keeping the network running.
After about a 30-minute closed-door session to discuss the two school leaders’ performance, the board voted unanimously to keep Parker and Kaharick in place, though with evaluations every six months instead of annually during the initial transition period.
“I think continuity is critical,” Harding said. “Ben leaving is a disruption. He’s been a very fine leader for this institution for 10 years. He’s an extraordinary individual and will be hard to replace. Replacing him with two people is probably a pretty good idea, actually.”
Keeping Kaharick and Parker in charge of the schools was Kleban’s recommendation, and he said their presence helps give him the confidence to leave the network he founded 10 years ago. Even so, he said, he has yet to quite adjust to the idea that he will no longer be there by the end of the year.
“It is extremely surreal,” Kleban said. “This has been my life for a decade. It’s definitely a big change.”