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So Much Happened In This Week's School Board Meetings. Let Us Catch You Up.

Aubri Juhasz
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. visits Akili Academy to celebrate the legacy of Ruby Bridges on Nov. 13, 2020.

It’s been a busy week for the Orleans Parish School Board. During its last two meetings of the year, members rejected tax exemptions for the Folger’s Coffee Company, approved new accountability measures for charter school finances, received an update on music and art education, and amended district-wide discipline policies to account for virtual learning.

If you’re having a similarly busy week you probably didn’t hop on Zoom to watch the board meetings in real time. Fortunately, we’re here to catch you up.

Board members unanimously reject tax breaks for Folgers

The board rejected six tax exemption requests from Folgers on Thursday night, securing roughly $2.9 million in local property taxes for schools. The taxes will be paid over a 10-year period.

Board members said the applications failed to meet minimum requirements and that the tax revenue could not be sacrificed, especially as the district’s other streams of revenue have been sharply reduced due to the pandemic.

The City Council wrestled with its own tax break requests from Folgers and ultimately decided to defer voting on four requests, while rejecting the other two. Folgers’ requests total roughly $25 million in local property tax breaks over 10 years and include taxes paid to schools as well as to the city of New Orleans, the Sewerage and Water Board, as well as other local government agencies.

The deferral was sought due to misinformation concerns. Folgers claims the amount of money tied up in the exemptions is exaggerated and does not account for the economic benefits the company’s plant in New Orleans’ East provides to the city.

City Council members made clear the exemptions don’t meet their acceptance criteria because they fail to create 15 new jobs at $18 an hour. It’s unclear exactly how much money the city would collect in future and back taxes if Folgers is granted no tax exemptions.

Superintendent’s charter renewal plan goes unchallenged

Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep was the only school not recommended for charter renewal at last week’s special board meeting. Of the 18 schools up for renewal, Crocker is the lowest-performing.

Following the announcement, Crocker’s leadership urged families to challenge the district’s decision at this week’s board meeting. The superintendent’s recommendations are not final and can be overturned by the school board with a supermajority vote.

The board decided not to contest Lewis’ recommendation. Crocker did not appear on Thursday night’s agenda and families and school administrators did not have the opportunity to publicly speak.

In the board meeting chat feature Cynthia Gallo shared the following message:

“What about the decision on Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep? The school has made much improvements. I have [two] grandkids that attend. My grandson went from a C average to a B average. The teachers are really working hard with the students.”

Under the superintendent’s recommendation, Crocker will remain open and operations will be awarded to a different charter.

Presentation highlights challenges of art and music education during COVID-19

Sonya Robinson with Artist Corps New Orleans and Célèste Kee with the New Orleans Arts Education Alliance presented recommendations to the school board on how to preserve music and arts education during COVID-19.

Robinson and Kee assembled a working group of 70 stakeholders across 28 public schools and held six listening sessions with 40 music and art educators. The working group was established under a school board resolution passed in August.

Providing arts and music education has become increasingly difficult during the pandemic, especially when activities carry heightened risks, such as singing and wind instruments.

Read more: In New Orleans, Music Education Programs Cautiously Fall Back In Step

Many schools have become risk-averse, limiting art and music classes and in some cases pulling those educators to teach other courses.

Robinson and Kee said schools need to ensure art and music teachers are not only allowed to continue to teach, but are offered necessary accommodations. To adhere to COVID-19 instructions, teachers may need longer class times, more time in between classes, smaller class sizes, and larger or outdoor classrooms.

Some classes require special personal protective equipment, like bell covers for wind instruments. Robinson said other teachers may simply need more materials so students don’t have to share.

Robinson and Kee also supplied a resource appendix for educators that includes best practices for all disciplines and specific guidance for music, dance, theatre arts, and visual arts. Kee said it’s meant to be a living document for teachers and will be updated regularly.

“Our hope is that NOLA Public Schools will distribute these to school leaders and we can follow up with additional professional development for school leaders in the spring to be able to move this work forward,” Robinson said.

District’s new virtual discipline policy passes without opposition

Board members also approved the district’s new virtual learning discipline policy. While there have been several high-profile expulsions in nearby Jefferson Parish related to students handling BB guns while on camera, there have been no expulsions or suspensions associated with virtual learning in Orleans Parish, according to Ulyses Collins III, chief safety, discipline, and direct run schools officer for NOLA-PS.

“Prior to the pandemic, students could choose what they share, but this policy would require them to disclose information about their home environment with which they might not be comfortable,” said Elizabeth Laird, a senior fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The approved policy requires students to have their computer camera turned on when virtual classes are in session. It also instructs students to connect from a “quiet, well-lit ‘classroom’ space — free, to the extent possible, from toys, images, messages, personal property, or other items that may distract from teaching and learning or that may subject the student to disciplinary action if possessed on school busses, in the regular classroom, or on school property.’”

Laird said this policy fails to account for students who don’t have their own space at home or are currently homeless, and that “requiring a student to keep their camera on, especially without providing supports to blur their background, could infringe on their privacy, stigmatize them, and even lead to bullying.”

She highlighted instances in which districts have worked to balance student engagement with personal protections and encouraged NOLA-PS to do the same.

In Broward County, Florida, students are required to turn their camera on for attendance, but can then go off-camera. Other districts and schools have provided virtual backgrounds for students to help preserve privacy.

The only students immediately impacted by the policy are those attending Mary D. Coghill, which the district is operating for the 2020-21 school year, and seniors at McDonogh #35 due to a transitional agreement between the district and the school.

Board counsel Sharondra Williams said at the policy’s public hearing on Dec. 10 that the legislation responsible for the new policy neither required nor allowed for the participation of the district’s charter schools. These students are subject to their school’s own discipline policies, which may or may not account for virtual learning.

The district has its own Student Hearing Office, which conducts all student disciplinary conferences and expulsion hearings. If a student is recommended for expulsion they have the opportunity to appeal the decision to the school district directly.

Board approves policies strengthening district financials

The school board also unanimously approved three policies addressing the district’s financial accountability and sustainability. One requires NOLA-PS to develop a framework to monitor the finances of closing schools and make sure funds are returned to the district in a timely manner.

Another creates a “school transformation fund,” which ensures funds collected from non-renewed charters are given to the school’s new operator. The last policy helps preserve the district’s finances by ending the automatic transfer of general fund reserves during the school transformation process.

All three policies were supported by the Bureau of Governmental Research, which offered sweeping financial recommendations in its March 2020 report, Learning Curve: A Guide To Navigating School Funding In New Orleans’ Unified District.

This week also marked a changing of the guard. Board President Ethan Ashley thanked outgoing members Sarah Newell Usdin, Woody Koppell, Leslie Ellison, and Grisela Jackon for their service. They’ll be replaced by newcomers Olin Parker, Jancarlo "J.C." Romero, Katherine Baudouin and Carlos Zervigon following a January induction.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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