Published Online: October 20, 2005

Judge Temporarily Halts New Orleans Charter School Plan

A judge has temporarily halted the move by the New Orleans school board to open all of its schools on the city's West Bank as charter schools. She accused the plan's leaders of exploiting the city's vulnerability after Hurricane Katrina to advance their advocacy of charter schools without enough public input.

Almost immediately, a faction of district leaders opposed to the charter school plan used the court-imposed delay to try to redraw the territory, saying they would reopen four of those schools as regular public schools. The divide only deepened the uncertainty about when and how New Orleans schools will reopen.

The Oct. 14 order by Civil District Court Judge Nadine M. Ramsey, issued in response to a local minister's lawsuit to block the charter schools, said the vote was "a disguised back-door attempt to push through a prehurricane agenda while the citizens of this city are displaced throughout the country."

The judge lambasted the New Orleans school board for the way it approved, by a 4-2 vote on Oct. 7, the plan to reopen as charters the first 13 district schools to resume classes since the devastating storm. ("New Orleans Adopts Plan for Charters," Oct. 19, 2005.)

"It is in this time of crisis, when the citizens of Orleans Parish are concerned about the very future of their communities, that the role of public input is crucial," Judge Ramsey wrote. "The people of New Orleans are entitled to participate in the process that will ultimately change the landscape of their public educational system."

Regina H. Bartholomew, the school district's lawyer, said the district had filed a motion to have the board's vote declared void. That would enable the panel to begin again from scratch, she said.

Process Debated

Lourdes Moran, the vice president of the school board, worked with city and state lawmakers to draft the charter school application and introduced it to the board. She said she had complied with correct procedures in introducing the measure.

She said that charter schools had been in the works for the Algiers neighborhood on the West Bank since long before Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, and that local input had been solicited on the idea at least twice in the past year.

"It's not that we're trying to exclude anyone," Ms. Moran said. "It's open access, based on the current conditions and circumstances facing us. I understand that community input is important, and we did have it. I felt there was sufficient input to go ahead and move forward."

School board President Torin Sanders, who voted against the charter school application, said there may well be a place for more charter schools in the district as it regains its footing. But the process by which that is decided must be a proper one, he said.

"Let's do it constructively, deliberately, inclusively, not in the middle of the night, in a way that a judge would find we have disrespected the public's role," he said.

With the charter school plan halted at least until Oct. 24, when the judge's order expires, Mr. Sanders joined with the district's interim superintendent, Ora L. Watson, on Oct. 18 as she announced a plan to reopen four of the West Bank schools in mid-November.

Opening eight of those schools as regular schools had been the plan under consideration before the charter school application was put to a vote.

"We don't need to sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting on the court" to resolve the issue, Mr. Sanders said in an interview. "We need to reopen schools in New Orleans. We are moving forward."

The school board is also beginning to discuss how it might reopen seven schools on the East Bank. That part of the city sustained severe damage from Katrina, but a small group of less damaged schools might be able to open as soon as January, board members said.

Separately, the board decided Oct. 14 to save money by changing health-insurance coverage for employees of the financially strapped district who do not return to work. As of Dec. 1, individual employees will have to pay the first $5,000-$10,000 for families-of their medical bills, a plan that local teachers' union President Brenda Mitchell said was not affordable for most teachers.

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