A historic, post-Katrina change in governance for a New Orleans public school



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NEW ORLEANS — Symbolically, it is one of the most important things to happen to public education in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit nearly 10 years ago — and if it goes smoothly, hardly anyone should notice.

Governance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward is moving from the Louisiana Recovery School District, the state agency that took over most New Orleans public schools after the storm, to the Orleans Parish School Board.

But the school will continue to be operated by the same independent charter organization. And, school system authorities and school officials predict a seamless transition.

School board member John Brown Sr. says the transfer moves the board closer to doing what its members were elected to do: "That is, govern the schools of New Orleans."

Operators of the school are enthusiastic about the change.

"We always knew there would be a time when we would go back home," said Doris Hicks, principal of the school and CEO of Friends of King, the nonprofit group that runs it.

But whether the move signals a trend remains to be seen.

New Orleans has a complex and often confusing patchwork of public school governance as a result of the Aug. 29, 2005 storm.

Prior to the storm, most schools were performing poorly. Meanwhile, corruption at the Orleans Parish School System offices reached all the way up to a former school board president, who eventually pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges.

After the levee failures and catastrophic flooding of Katrina, the Orleans Parish system was unable to open its 120 schools. That's when the state ramped up a 2003 program allowing the Recovery School District to assume control of low-performing schools. Most schools were placed under the RSD while the school board maintained a handful of high performers.

Now, the RSD oversees 56 schools. It has turned day-to-day operation of each of them over to independent charter organizations. Those organizations have their own boards and operate with a great deal of autonomy, as long as they meet state standards. The Orleans board now oversees 24 schools with the addition of the King school — and all but six of those are charters as well.

RSD schools that want to return to the Orleans board have to reach a certain school performance score based on student achievement on standardized tests and other factors. RSD officials say 36 schools in New Orleans now meet the criteria but King, so far, is the only one returning to the fold.

Hicks said the Friends of King Schools nonprofit grew from a group of parents, teachers who had a history with the King school before the storm. They got their original charter through the state, but Friends of King board president Hilda Young said the group was always interested in returning to the Orleans Parish system.

"I'm a former Orleans Parish school principal and, of course, Dr. Hicks was a former principal with Orleans parish schools," said Young. "We were always anticipating the fact that we would return to Orleans parish."

Still, even the Friends of King board took its time in making the move.

"One of our hesitations with going back was that they didn't have a superintendent," Young said.

Henderson Lewis has only recently taken over as superintendent of Orleans Parish schools — chosen only after more than two years of disagreements and deadlock on who should run the system.

The squabbling that preceded the eventual selection of Lewis, and the recent indictment of board member Ira Thomas, who resigned after being accused in a bribery scheme involving a school system contract, were reminiscent of a time in the years preceding and immediately after Katrina.

Lewis, however, was selected unanimously in January.

Brown, appointed to the board by other members after Thomas' resignation, said the board's overall image is getting better and the public is becoming more confident in its ability to manage schools.

Lewis said he's eager for more charters to make the move, although he didn't guarantee a timetable, noting that he is working on a five-year plan to "re-image" the school system. But, he added, when it's time for more schools to decide whether to make the move next year, "you will see more schools doing the same thing MLK has decided to do."

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