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City Council restores power over education grants to NOLA-PS following district’s request

Aubri Juhasz
Akili Academy fourth-graders sit in the school's courtyard on Nov. 13, 2020.

New Orleans’ City Council has rescinded a resolution to include the Mayor’s Office in the dispersal of education grants, following a request from the city’s public school district, board president Ethan Ashley said during Thursday’s school board meeting.

Last month, the Council voted unanimously to include the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families in the annual process of dispersing education funds paid to the city by Harrah’s Casino as part of a lease agreement.

The process typically involves negotiations between the city’s public school district and the Council to distribute funds. The now retracted resolution would have required the district to negotiate with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families as well.

Ashley said the retraction was a promising step, especially since the board has other outstanding concerns regarding the Council’s recent handling of Harrah’s funding.

“We have some partners now who are serious about working with our district and we are grateful for their partnership,” Ashley said.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Ashley criticized the previous Council —new members were appointed in January — for failing to work with the district.

The district typically uses Harrah’s money to fund programs for students with significant special needs, but only received half of its $3 million request when the Council decided to prioritize early education instead.

Thursday marked Ashley’s final board meeting as president and the unanimous election of board member Olin Parker as his replacement.

Board leadership is elected each year in January to serve a one-year term. Ashley was elected in Jan. 2020 and re-elected last year. J.C. Wagner Romero was unanimously elected vice president, a position previously held by Nolan Marshall.

Parker thanked Ashley for his tireless service to the district and promised to prioritize student achievement, special education, district innovation and racial equity during his tenure.

“I will work as hard as the teachers and the school leaders in our community work everyday,” Parker said. “They show up everyday, and they pour their heart and soul into this work and I hope that I can match that level of effort.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the board also voted to amend its COVID-19 vaccine requirement to include booster shots for its roughly 200-person central office staff. Individual charter schools set their own vaccine policies for staff.

Staff members are required to get boosted by Feb. 4, 2022 or within 14 days of becoming eligible. The amendment also extends to “any boosters that are currently recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and any additional boosters recommended by the CDC in the future.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Stuart Gay, the district’s chief financial officer, presented Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s recommended changes to the district’s school funding formula for the coming year, which the board is expected to vote on next month.

The board’s February meetings are scheduled for Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 5:30 p.m. Board meetings are held in-person at 2401 Westbend Parkway New Orleans, LA 70114 and can be streamed online as well.

Recommended changes include using the System Wide Needs Program to close gaps in funding for specialized programming and differentiating all revenue using a weighted formula, which would direct more money toward students with special needs.

In addition to the recommended changes, Lewis requested that the district conduct a comprehensive study of its School Facilities Preservation Program to potentially identify cost-saving measures.

“This is truly a complicated financial time that we are living through,” Lewis said. “I believe it is of the utmost importance that we consider effectiveness and efficient use of all of our revenue streams.”

As part of his monthly remarks, Lewis also reminded families of the district’s vaccine mandate, which requires all students 5 years and older to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1 unless their parent completes the state’s opt-out form.

“We are among the first districts, if not the first district in the nation, to do this, and it is essential that we follow through so that our students can get the most out of the second half of this school year,” he said.

Schools have held regular on-site vaccine events since the vaccine was approved for children at the end of October 2020.

Even so, between vaccine reluctance, widespread quarantines from the omicron surge and other unforeseen barriers, some schools have acknowledged that they’re unlikely to have full compliance by the deadline.

Other items on Thursday’s agenda included finalizing the closures of two schools at the end of the academic year due to low enrollment and encouraging high schools to provide voter education and registration resources through the Lower 9th Ward Voter’s Coalition and other partner organizations.

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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