Don’t Blame New Orleans Schools for Corrupt Officials’ Choices

Within days, announcements of corruption and malfeasance between New Orleans’s rivaling charter and traditional school systems proved that immorality and incompetence is agnostic toward school type.

Whether in a traditional district or a charter school, tainted people always make systems look bad.

On March 3, The Louisiana Department of Education cited Lagniappe Academies for failing “to provide an appropriate education for students with special needs.” (Ironically, the word lagniappe means to provide “a little extra something.” More irony – only one school exists in New Orleans in the presumed network) The scathing report evinces school leaders “directed teachers not to provide students with the special education services mandated in their IEPs [individualized education programs].” Not only did the school not provide services to their special needs students, the state report claims school officials counseled certain students out of the school altogether. In the same week, the state board also reported that Lagniappe Academies’ principal, Kendall Petri, hired her mother, a violation of state policy.

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Three days later, on March 6, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite filed a bribery charge against New Orleans School Board member Ira Thomas for taking a kickback to secure a janitorial contract from the school board. According to a bill of information from the U.S. attorney’s office, Thomas disguised a $5,000 bribe as a campaign contribution toward his failed New Orleans sheriff campaign. Prior to the charge, Thomas’s reason for being seemed to be enforcing the district’s disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) program, which requires that 35 percent of the city’s contracts go to local, minority-owned businesses.

David Foster Wallace said, “The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates.”

The only great thing about these cases is that their announcements within days of each other highlighted the prevalence of how adults cheat children. Charlatans, rogues and incompetents exist in any system. But in both of the aforementioned cases, safeguards in public government worked. A Louisiana State Board of Education committee voted to close troubled Lagniappe, and Thomas resigned after Polite’s investigation.

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So before you start preaching predictable anti-school board or anti-charter rhetoric, the evidence suggests that everyone wants to get his or her mother a job.

But hackles for Thomas seem louder than for Petri. The weight of shame shouldn’t be lesser for Lagniappe’s Petri. Since the storm, subsequent elected boards have tried to shed the reputation solidified by former member Ellenese Brooks-Simms being found guilty in 2010 for taking $100,000 in exchange for her support for an algebra program. Still, school board member Woody Koppel said, “[I]t’s like a step back.”

Have faith folks. A certain school board members’ duplicity shouldn’t test your love for public school boards or a love of democracy.

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In his column, Times-Picayune’s Jarvis Deberry wrote, “[I]t’s hard to make the case for the Orleans Parish School Board taking control of more schools when the people who have been elected to serve on it can’t be trusted to stay on the right side of the law.”

The New Orleans School Board certainly has a long history of corruption and malfeasance. But don’t worry Deberry; charters’ evolving track record should move you to a least fling doubt across sectors.

Remember when Kelly Thompson, CFO of Langston Hughes Academy pilfered $675,000 from the school back in 2010? Thompson, who was sentenced to five years in federal prison, has company. Not to be outdone, the state of Minnesota found that Success Academy Charter School owed taxpayers $608,000 because they inflated their enrollment.

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So we shouldn’t hear shouting about the inherent failings of traditional or charter schools. Exploiting someone’s personal failings for a limited cause only adds to the corruption.

There are some big picture lessons we should learn from the two most recent cases of New Orleans school corruption. It’s clear the desperation to show growth can lead to nefarious practices like counseling out (in the case of Lagniappe), expulsion and suspension. In addition, shady people hide behind noble goals. The charge against Thomas should not lessen the urgency to hire minority contractors. Also, charter schools didn’t create contracting regimes. But they should be as transparent as their traditional counterparts.

I’ve observed that black shame surfaces whenever a black public official is found guilty of a crime. But don’t let a bad banana spoil the bunch. Criminals represent themselves not black people. It’s racist to think otherwise.

New Orleans should believe its elected board can manage finances as well as any charter management organization (I say that positively). Instead of doubting public education and specifically school boards, have faith that cheaters will be caught.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).