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Court-Ordered Mediation Between OPSB, Dryades YMCA Set For Friday, Delaying Charter Revocation

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Aubri Juhasz
James M. Singleton Charter School at the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. July 4, 2021.

New Orleans Public Schools and the Dryades YMCA will meet Friday for court-ordered mediation regarding the district’s intention to revoke the organization’s charter operating agreement, district spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo told New Orleans Public Radio.

“After the mediation, the district will determine how to move forward in this matter,” Alfonzo wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.

The district hit a series of roadblocks in late June when it announced its desire to yank Dryades’ charter due to alleged mismanagement and potentially close James M. Singleton Charter School, the elementary school it operates.

Dryades’ legal counsel filed a lawsuit against the school board in early July arguing that the revocation announcement was rash and violated its agreement with the district.

“OPSB has already begun the post-revocation process of assigning students to other schools and setting Dryades employees up with new employers,” the lawsuit alleges. “But revocation has not occurred.”

In response, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley issued a temporary restraining order preventing the district from taking any steps toward closing the school and later extended the order following a lengthy hearing last Thursday.

Emotions ran high in the courtroom and spectators filled every seat in the gallery, overflowing into the empty jury box. Nearly a dozen Singleton employees attended wearing matching Dr. Seuss themed t-shirts.

“There Needs To Be A Plan”

At the hearing, one of NOLA Public Schools’ lawyers Ashley Heilprin argued the district had not overstepped and was instead doing its job by ensuring spots would be available for students should the revocation request become final.

“There needs to be a plan,” she said. “We don’t want to leave 250 students on the eve of the school year with nowhere to go.”

Much of the hearing’s debate centered on a district press release and a special board meeting both concerning Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s intention to recommend to the school board that Dryades’ charter be revoked as soon as possible.

Dryades’ counsel argued that the district’s actions and language suggested the revocation was all but certain, creating a premature sense of panic.

“Without students and teachers the school dies,” Dryades lawyer Charles Zimmer said, suggesting that even if the revocation fails to pass, low-enrollment and an exodus of teachers could effectively kill the school.

Zimmer and his co-counsel Charline Gipson said Dryades had no choice but to take legal action against the district in an effort to check its “unfettered” power.

Samuel Odom, Dryades’ interim chief executive officer, echoed his counsels’ claims from the stand explaining that the revocation had been presented as a “foregone conclusion,” creating a “sense of impending doom” for the Singleton community.

District counsel sought to dismiss Zimmer and Gipson’s claims, by arguing they lacked legal basis, but Medley was unconvinced. She upheld the restraining order and instructed both sides to attend mediation no later than July 16.

In her ruling, she stressed the importance of protecting students and providing them with a sense of stability.

“My big concern is the mental toll of yanking kids in and out,” Medley said. “Kids have already been through so much in these past two years.”

Medley went on to say that resolving the situation before the start of the school year would be essential, but she declined to enforce the district’s desired deadline of July 14 which would have allowed them to follow their desired revocation timeline.

Revocation Timeline In Disarray

For a school’s charter to be revoked, school board policy says the superintendent must provide written notice of a “proposed revocation” to the charter’s governing board no later than 30 calendar days prior to the school board meeting where he intends to formally recommend it.

The superintendent must then provide written notice to school staff, parents and students at least 15 days prior to the formal recommendation and hold at least one school community meeting at least five days prior.

Lewis began this process, providing his written notice to Dryades’ leadership in a letter dated June 28 that stated he intended to formally request charter revocation at a July 29 school board meeting. Dryades is supposed to receive the opportunity to respond to the formal revocation recommendation. The timeline has been put on hold until mediation is complete.

The timing leaves both parties in a mad dash to resolve the problem before the start of the semester — Aug. 9 — or risk moving students and teachers mid-year.

Should Singleton close, the district said a nearby school, FirstLine Live Oak, is prepared to enroll all of its students, though parents are free to send their child to any school with an open seat.

The district does not employ teachers directly and cannot guarantee they will be hired by another charter school, though they said they’re encouraging schools to consider Singleton teachers for any available openings.

One teacher told New Orleans Public Radio she did not understand the district’s sense of urgency regarding the closure.

“I’m sad,” she said. “I don’t feel like necessarily the best interest of our kids are being had.”

Odom openly acknowledged Dryades’ past failures to properly operate Singleton but said he had done his best to improve the situation since becoming CEO earlier this year.

Medley appeared to agree with him.I see a school that took steps to remedy things,” she said, describing Dryades and Singleton in her ruling.

"This Is Hard … But … It Will Be Worth It"

School closures are typically telegraphed well in advance and occur following a charter non-renewal. Revocations are rare, but can be triggered when the charter is clearly violated or the operator commits a serious infraction.

On the stand, Lewis said the situation at Singleton required immediate intervention.

“More than $1 million unaccounted for is an emergency,” Lewis said, referencing the money the district claims Dryades owes Singleton. “The question I’ve been asking over and over again is, ‘What happened with the $1 million?’”

The allegedly missing money is just one of many concerns the district has raised regarding its decision to revoke Dryades’ charter before it expires at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

Dryades has received 13 notices of non-compliance, including eight high-level warnings known as “level 2 notices,” since July 2018. Seven of the 13 notices were issued during the last school year.

The charter currently has three outstanding level 2 notices; one for financial mismanagement, another for board governance and a third for failing to perform adequate employee background checks.

District officials have also cited Dryades for numerous special education violations and said checks written to cash raised additional red flags.

“This is very hard and I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it,” Lewis said. “It’s tough in the moment, but once [students are] in a stable environment it will be worth it.”

While the final decision rests with members of the school board, Lewis has an established record of getting his way. Dryades’ lawyer Charles Zimmer asked him how many of his recommendations the OPSB has rejected during his 7 years as superintendent.

“None,” he said.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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