New Orleans

A decade after Katrina, school decentralization continues in NOLA, with job cuts

Change in the New Orleans education landscape is nothing new, but a recently announced central-office reorganization of the Orleans Parish School Board that could cut two dozen jobs is noteworthy for the direction it takes the deeply rooted city bureaucracy.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, New Orleans is not an all-charter school district. But it’s close. And the plan as described would take it even closer, with distinctions that could be more semantic than operational.

In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, the traditional central office shrank as its responsibilities were reduced when the state-run Recovery School District took over most schools, Making New Orleans the center of a national experiment, the RSD slowly chartered each of the schools it ran. But, the central office continues to employ more than 100 people, with a complicated organizational chart that was designed to manage the more than 120 schools in the city before the storm.

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The School Board continues to directly run five schools, while also providing general oversight to some charters. The bigger player in the city, with oversight of about 70 percent of its public schools, is the RSD now made up entirely of charter schools.

Henderson Lewis Jr.

Henderson Lewis Jr.

Now newly appointed Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. plans to cut staff and move money — and some responsibility — to the five traditional schools. Critics say the result would essentially make every school in the city a charter. Lewis refers to those five campuses as “network schools,” rather than “direct-run schools,” which had been the phrase for the past 10 years.

The vocabulary of reform changes

That change reflects language used in the charter school movement, such as “charter management organization” and “charter network.”

The head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, Caroline Roemer Shirley, says she is pleased with Lewis’ hard look at the central office.

“We’re encouraged to see that he is thinking about those things and how to move a very traditional central office to something that is much more reflective of what is needed,” she said.

“How can they better position themselves to be supporters of these schools rather than day-to-day operators of the schools?”

Shirley points out that the majority of Orleans Parish schools are charters, and the district needs to now focus on holding those charter operators accountable, as well as other bigger-picture items.

Lewis’s plan, which the full School Board will formally consider Tuesday, will cut 20 to 25 positions of the 103 at the central office. Four new senior-level positions will be created. Central-office employees were notified of the pending reorganization through a form letter that was sent out June 4.

It’s not clear whether Lewis will seek to charter the remaining schools, but since taking office in March, he talked about moving responsibilities and accountability to the schools, away from the system’s main office.

Shirley agrees with that strategy.

“Many of these schools do their own hiring, their own back-office work,” she said. “They do all the things that traditionally needed to be taken care of by the district.”

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The district framework is still needed for overarching matters, Shirley said, such as enrollment projections, facility management, special education and tax collection.

When the RSD took over most of the city’s schools right after Katrina, the School Board was left with 21 high-performing schools. Many became charters quickly under the traditional board, long before the RSD chartered all of the schools it ran. The RSD completed the conversion last summer.

Lewis’s decentralization strategy was no secret, made known publicly in his 180-day plan submitted during his application process. Some changes were expected as soon as this week.

His proposal anticipates the School Board’s management of more charters. That’s because RSD charter schools can move back to School Board oversight if they improve academics above the level considered failing and maintain a state-specified school performance score for two years.

Despite more than 30 schools being eligible to make that move this year. Only one did — the first in the RSD’s 12-year history. Critics of the School Board said it isn’t ready for a big influx of established charters.

Lewis’s plans appear to counter that notion.

“The purpose of the reorganization is to build a school system that is centered on school autonomy, and building a culture of support, transparency, and equity in the central office,” a statement from his office said.

“Our goal is to build a modern day school system and central office that is prepared to meet the needs of all public school students in our post-Katrina education landscape,” Lewis said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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