In The News › New broom promises to clean house in Orleans Parish schools office

Apr 15, 2015

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

New broom promises to clean house in Orleans Parish schools office

By Danielle Dreilinger | The Times-Picayune

April 15, 2015

New Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. vows to cut staff in the Orleans Parish public school system’s central office, improve employee ethics and clean up contracts to restore trust in the School Board. More trust, he said, will lead to unifying New Orleans’ two school systems under the locally elected board.

“I will be working day in and day out to unify our system,” he said.

Lewis presented his plan at a Bureau of Governmental Research breakfast Wednesday (April 15), at a time of great optimism and great frustration for New Orleans schools. That morning, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave final approval for the first state takeover school to return to the Orleans Parish system. Meanwhile, former Orleans School Board member Ira Thomas awaits a hearing in federal court on charges he took a bribe for a school contract.

As the wait for a new superintendent approached the three-year mark, the public’s hopes for this superhero grew. At this point, Lewis is being called upon to do nothing short of bringing the city back together, 10 years after the state Recovery School District took over four fifths of the city’s schools.

On his 19th day on the job, Lewis said he will make it happen.

The takeover schools don’t have to come back: It’s up to their charter boards. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter finally said yes in December, but another three dozen schools have said no. Charter boards’ complaints included a sense that the Orleans Parish system wasn’t ready for them, was too political, lacked leadership and might step on their toes.

Lewis said his job was to “create an infrastructure that can accommodate them.” Hence: restructuring. The world has changed but the central office hasn’t, he said.

The School Board and Lewis’ administration run only six schools now; their other 14 schools are charters. But Lewis said even those six schools will be run by their principals, not the central office. That requires a new kind of “portfolio management,” he said, using a term popular in the charter world.

He would not give the number of layoffs he envisions but said that with about 85 employees supported by the general fund, “We’re overstaffed.” The central office needs “to find ways to cut back on our expenses so we are better able to push the money to our schools,” he said.

And given “the most recent allegations” about Thomas, the remaining employees will be re-trained on ethics, he said. Staff should feel they can blow the whistle if they see wrongdoing, Lewis said. Prosecutors say Thomas had an accomplice in the central office but have not publicly identified that person.

In addition to cleaning house of employees, Lewis said he will clean up the contracts. His team is currently reviewing them all, he said, to assess “the effectiveness of the services.”

He might terminate contracts that have gone on for years with little results, he said. There will be a particular focus on the school system’s disadvantaged business contracting program, to ensure the people doing the work are qualified, he said. Those companies are typically minority- or woman-owned.

The School Board is currently on the brink of legal action with a contractor, Woodrow Wilson, whose directors said the contracting office strong-armed them into using a particular company that did not complete the work.

The School Board has asked the New Orleans inspector general to audit its operations. That office won’t be able to accommodate them, however, Lewis said, so he’s contacting the Louisiana legislative auditor. “We have a lot of money flowing through the district now for construction,” he said, and “we just want to have some extra eyes … to reassure the public.”

Some other elements of Lewis’ plan:

School Board members will have training and a retreat to develop a five-year plan.

Lewis will ramp up the system’s Jump Start vocational and technical initiative so students graduate ready for both college and careers.

His team is intervening at McDonogh #35, the illustrious high school where test scores have fallen with the end of its entrance requirements.

A full-time community relations staffer will gather public input on the schools.

Will the state takeover schools start coming back? The presence of several Recovery School District staffers, charter board members and principals at Wednesday’s event appeared to show they were listening.

Ramsey Green, chairman of a charter board that fell one vote short of returning to the School Board, said he will wait to see how Lewis’ plans play out. “It will be an interesting thing to watch,” he said.

Leslie Jacobs, one of the architects of the Recovery School District, found Lewis’ promise of better management compelling. “I think there’s been a lot of schools saying, ‘Show me,’” she said. “If Dr. Lewis can deliver on his vision, I think we will see schools coming back.”

Apr 15, 2015

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Schools

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