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BESE Report – August 2014

What does the future hold for John McDonogh High School?

The most controversial issue in this month’s BESE meeting once again involved the future of New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School. “John Mac” has been labeled a failure as a Recovery District School and as a charter school. The Orleans Parish school Board, which oversees some of the city’s highest ranked schools, would like to see the school returned to its fold.

The school is currently undergoing a $40 million renovation, which will continue no matter what future is ultimately determined for the school.

While alumni and community leaders are passionate in their desire to see the school returned to local control, the RSD is reluctant to release its grasp.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard told BESE that RSD’s goal is to charter all of the schools under its control, including John Mac.

But under heavy pressure from community groups, BESE directed Dobard to work with the Orleans Parish School Board and the community on a resolution to the McDonogh situation. The RSD chief was ordered to report back to BESE at its October meeting.

LFT fights for voucher accountability

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers brought its fight for accountability in the state’s voucher program to BESE, winning one round and losing another when a committee chairman failed to consider public input on an issue.

Both of the issues were related to laws adopted by the legislature in the 2014 session. LFT Legislative Director Mary-Patricia Wray successfully argued for better oversight of the Tuition Donation Rebate Program.

The program allows businesses and individuals to get tax rebates for contributions to a fund that pays the tuition for students in voucher schools. The cost to the state’s general fund and to public education’s Minimum Foundation Program could be significant.

The rule proposed by BESE to oversee the program originally said that a school that failed to comply with state requirements “may” be barred from receiving funds.

Wray said the rule should be stricter, absolutely barring cheaters from getting the funds.

The chairman of the School Innovation and Turnaround Committee, Jim Garvey, objected, saying that the funds were private donations. Wray responded that, as a tax expenditure, the rebate would affect the state budget.

“If you want money available for the MFP, there have to be real consequences for this audit,” she said.

BESE Member Lottie Beebe moved to change the language in the proposed rule from “may” to “shall.” Garvey was the only member to vote against the change.

The second issue involved a legislative requirement that voucher schools maintain separate accounts for the money that they receive from the state.

Like the rule proposed for the tuition rebate program, voucher rules say that schools “may” lose their right to accept voucher students if they fail to provide an adequate audit.

Garvey rushed the vote on the agenda item, asking members to approve the new rule before hearing comments from the audience. Wray was only allowed to speak after the vote was taken

Urging BESE to tighten the rules on voucher schools, Wray said, “You have the ability to make all schools know that someone is watching.”

Pre-school programs threatened by 8(g) cutback

One of the sources that struggling school systems use to fund preschool programs is under threat as BESE eyes different uses for 8(g) offshore oil and gas revenues.

While local superintendents argued for using the money to prop up preschool programs, BESE members said the program’s block grants can’t sustain pre-K forever.

The pool of money available through the 8(g) fund has shrunk from $41 million in 2008-09 to about $24 million today. Some in the administration are hoping to use 8(g) funds to pay for the scandal-plagued Course Choice program, which is prohibited from using public education’s MFP funds.

The fund is divided into four spending categories: statewide programs, competitive grants, block grants and special projects. While 8(g) funds are not intended for long-term projects like pre-school, supporters say it is unlikely that new sources of revenue will be available in the near future.

Intern issue raises eyebrows

Answering questions raised by a popular education blogger, Superintendent of Education John White reported to BESE that he hired about 15 interns during the summer at $20 per hour.

White was responding to questions from BESE Members Lottie Beebe and Jane Smith. White said he did not know the exact number of interns hired, that they began work in mid-June, and that some had already completed their internship while others will be through at the end of August.

Questions arose about the intern program when Crazy Crawfish blogger Jason France reported that DOE insiders were telling him perhaps as many as 100 interns had been hired. The department apparently stonewalled any inquiries about the intern program. White’s comments at the BESE meeting were the first public acknowledgment of the program.

Audits concern BESE members

Without mentioning specific school systems, some BESE members expressed surprise and anger that a few districts consistently fail to provide appropriate audits of their finances.

When Auditor Dudley Garidel told the board that some districts have been non-compliant for as many as five years, Member Jane Smith said that a fifth consecutive finding “must raise red flags.”

At least twice during the presentation, Garidel stressed that his function is simply to report to BESE on the status of district audits.

Garidel compared his job to that of a police officer issuing a traffic ticket, saying that BESE must decide what to do after the finding is released.

“I don’t have the power to make corrections,” he said. “It is on the board to bring pressure to superintendents.”

The “significant audit findings” are listed on the BESE Web site – click here for access.

RSD budget criticized

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard spent some time on the hot seat explaining his district’s $213 million budget.

Member Carolyn Hill asked Dobard to explain why the RSD needs nearly $8.7 million to pay salaries, when the RSD now directly runs so few schools. Most have been converted to charters.

Dobard explained that RSD has 92 full-time staff, including those at early learning centers, the enrollment team, and welfare and attendance officers.

One parent then complained that RSD now exists simply “to keep people employed.”

“We created a monster, and it is out of control in terms of spending $213 million,” she said.

Dobard was grilled by Member Lottie Beebe, who asked why RSD needs to continue its oversight role, with each charter school having an administration that is supposed to be responsible to BESE.

“It’s not simply an oversight role,” Dobard said. “The majority of our work is to guarantee equity for kids…We are there in partnership to make certain they are following guidelines.”

Member Carolyn Hill responded that the RSD’s original role was to turn schools around and then return them to the local school board.

“What can we do as a board? Hill asked. “All the money we spend on RSD could be spent in other areas.”

BESE approves 14 new charter schools

The board gave approval to 14 new charter schools and deferred action on four more until the October meeting. Ten applicants for charters withdrew their applications before the meeting.

One of the deferred applications was for Grambling University’s laboratory school, which is experiencing upheaval in its governance, academic plan and funding. Another was for Greater Grace Charter in St. James Parish, which has been rejected twice by BESE. Superintendent of Education John White said he is concerned about the school’s reliance on computer-based instruction.

Two other deferred applications were for expansions of the for-profit company Charter Schools USA, which wanted to expand operations in Monroe and Shreveport.