Jan 142013
 

From left, charter-school advocate Caroline Roemer Shirley, state official Raphael Gang and consultant Jeremy Hunnewell field questions from an audience of about 100 people at Lycee Francais on Monday evening. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A team of three officials sent by the state’s top educator told a large group of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans parents Monday night that their concerns about the school’s leadership have been heard, and that they intend to forge a plan to correct the problems and prevent them from being repeated.

Although many parents noted that they have been sharply divided over those issues, both sides expressed optimism about the arrival of the outside help. Several major questions remain, however, such as whether the cavalry has arrived soon enough to prevent any further damage to the school, and what ultimate authority the team’s recommendations will have.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, leader of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said that Lycee’s issues have been a source of frequent discussion at the state level, particularly between her and state Superintendent John White. While parents generally seem satisfied with the classroom instruction and the school’s finances seem to be recovering from a deficit at the end of last year, Roemer Shirley said that frequent complaints about the school’s governance have attracted the attention of the state.

“The governance side has some areas that still need to be improved,” said Raphael Gang, chief of staff of the state Department of Education Office of Portfolio, which oversees charter schools.

Roemer Shirley’s association, which advocates for charter schools in Louisiana, had independently determined that one gap in the state’s public education framework was support and training for charter school boards, and was developing a program to address that. With that in mind, she and White decided upon a grant to hire an outside consultant, Jeremy Hunnewell of EMH Strategies, to work specifically with Lycee on its leadership.

That process will have several steps that could take roughly three months, Hunnewell explained. First, he plans on speaking to parents on all sides of the issue, board members, teachers (confidentially if needed) and anyone else about what Lycee’s problems are and how to solve them. Part of his job will be developing a process to select the school’s next CEO, but he will also simultaneously be making recommendations on how to correct issues with the school’s governing structure, he said.

“My goal is to help identify the best CEO possible for this school. Along the way, I know we’re going to find a lot of other things that need to be improved,” Hunnewell said. “My focus is going to be the school leader, but I’m not going to turn a blind eye to everyone else.”

Speaking for about an hour while the Lycee board was meeting privately about a lawsuit filed by a fired special-education coordinator, the team from the state did not mince words about the school’s current situation. Some board members have been too involved with the school’s daily operations and its faculty, performing tasks that should have been left to the school leader, they said. As they look at the skills represented on the board, one recommendation they may make is for some members to “roll off” the board, Roemer Shirley said.

And, if the process fails and leadership issues persist at the school, state officials may ultimately decide to take away Lycee’s charter, she said.

“You are facing revocation for this school,” Roemer Shirley said. “There is the potential that you may not be able to be in this school anymore.”

That potential, however, represents the most extreme action the state could take, Gang stressed. In addition to what appear to be positive strides in academics and finances (the school received a clean audit Monday night), Lycee should be commended for its strong parental involvement, Gang said — evidenced in part by how strongly they disagree over the school’s direction.

“Our goal in this process is to rebuild the trust, to rebuild the bond, between the parents of this school and the governance,” Gang said.

For the most part, the audience of 100 people (including those who sent a letter to the state late last week asking for the removal of two board members and those who responded this week with a letter touting the school’s progress and calling the first group “misguided”) seemed receptive to the new arrivals — most who spoke or asked questions began their comments by thanking them for appearing.

One parent, Robert Rachal, said he was among the parents who signed the grievance letter against the board precisely in hopes of getting such a conversation started. Although the board members themselves did not discuss that letter at Monday’s meeting, Rachal said it might be better that way — aggrieved parents may prefer to talk the issues out with the new arrivals.

“If we’ve got this other process in place, it may be a better, more effective way to get a solution,” Rachal said after the meeting.

Jeff Teague, treasurer of the school’s parent-teacher organization, said he was optimistic about the way parents on both sides of the issue reacted to the team from the state.

“What I saw was a lot of individuals who are really excited about having this support,” Teague said. “A disinterested third party may be able to help us all come to the table. We need somebody to help us mediate all these ideas.”

Several speakers, however, expressed concern that neither the current board, nor the state team, fully recognizes the importance of the French curriculum to many parents. That was their reason for choosing the school — the prospect of their child graduating with a French diploma — and both they and the teachers deserved to have that promise fulfilled, they said. State officials replied that they were aware of this concern.

Others worried that the intervention may be coming too late to save some teachers. Some of the French teachers have looming decisions about whether to renew their visas and may not be able to wait three months, a few parents pointed out. Hunnewell said that he has already begun gathering information, and that he may be able to make some recommendations sooner.

Finally, the team’s authority over the school appeared to be a sort of gray area. It is the first time the LAPCS has partnered with the state to do such “crisis work,” Roemer Shirley said, and they haven’t determined what the formal arrangement will be between the team and the existing school board.

To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.

[Note: This article was first posted at 6:30 p.m. Monday with live coverage, updated shortly after midnight with the summary of the meeting, and updated again just before 1 p.m. Tuesday to include the "Lycee progress" letter that was received Tuesday morning.]

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.pinkerton Michael Pinkerton

    Robert thanks for your hard work tonight

    • UptownMessenger

      My pleasure. Thanks for reading, Michael.

  • Josh Reyher

    Well done by evryone in the meeting. Robert nice job by you and Rebecca.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735261728 Keith Alan Morris

    Good job, Robert. The teachers didn’t speak up much, but if you listened closely, you could hear that if changes aren’t made by February, they ALL may not return en masse next Fall. That’s scary.

  • Maruchie

    Morris’ coverage has been deeply misguided. It was based on a version of the “facts” presented by disgruntled employees and ousted board members who, as we now know from the audit just released, we’re guilty of financial mismanagement, malfeasance, personal use of school cell phones, and receiving $29,000 in unauthorized payments. Mr. Morris fueled the witch hunt against the board of directors with sensationalist accusations which have now been proven by the audit to have been WRONG. But the damage done to the reputations of members of the board, who it turns out did do the right thing for the school, cannot be easily remedied, Nor can the erosion of trust. Mr. Morris should be ashamed of himself. And he should apologize to the board and to the school community.

    • Joy Van Buskirk

      Maruchie

      You just don’t get it, do you? It is easy to make critical and demeaning remarks about others without sharing your full name. I would call that cowardly. I would suggest that you go back and look at board agendas over the last year. You will see until lately they are quite generic. The reason? Most of their business was done without procedures and policies. This board knows nothing about their responsibilities. Boards issue contracts to employees. No contracts at LFNO. Boards place financial issues such as severance packages, contracts with consultants, etc. on board agendas for board votes. Case in point, the Sweet Olive contract, and the principal severance package. No agenda items for the aforementioned, and no board votes there. Without board votes there is no authorization. Get it? The principal was not a board member. Only board members determine their agendas. If you did not know, let me make this crystal clear. The board is the principal’s boss not vice versa. When boards do not have policies in place, and the LFNO board did not have a phone policy in place, no one knows what the expectations of them are. The board member who had a cell, Maruchie, stepped up to assist the chairman who almost died and had to take a leave of absence. That was about five months before the school opened. Where was your help five months before the school opened? The acting board chair had to sign documents, etc. He had no cell phone. How did you expect those involved to get to him since he was the decision maker? He signed the charter contract with the state. You have no idea what happened and you prattle on? Get your story straight.

      The board deserves to have its reputation damaged. They have embarrassed the school, the staff, the parents and the children. Look around Maruchie, what other charter school board in this area have such a hellacious record? None – zippo. Let’s see their record is as follows: nine board members stepped down, two CEOs gone, and four employees fired within a span of 15 months, and oh, they have been sued for defamation. You find me one other board is this area that has that record.

      As far as Mr. Morris is concerned, he is a journalist reporting the news. He, unlike you, can not distort facts.
      Finally, it is the LFNO board members that should apologize to the charter board members in this city, as they have demonstrated negligence, intimidation, incompetency, and mean spiritedness to say the least.

  • Paul Gregory

    Lycée Français lesson du jour:

    http://www.values.com/inspirational-stories-tv-spots/121-Timeout

    Civility binds us as a society. It denotes respect. It allows us to disagree without being disagreeable. Civility encourages different points of view. This message, which I feel is both timely and relevant, brings home this important concept.

    -Paul Gregory