• 72°

Hemelt: Parents lacking specifics in St. John’s charter school process

“Great news” was how Mark Roussel greeted word that St. John the Baptist Parish Public School Board members voted 10-1 in favor of approving a Type 1 Charter contract with Louisiana Premier Charter School.

Roussel, who is president of the Louisiana Premier Charter School Board, said there is hope the charter school could open as a kindergarten-through-ninth grade school this August.

While granting that accelerated timeline is a long shot, Roussel told me he sees a bright future with charter officials working with the public school district to operate a Type 1 charter school either in 2018-19 or starting in 2019-20.

Yet, if you’re a parent in St. John Parish and you want specifics about what and when the next move is, this painfully slow process hasn’t really jumpstarted that much.

Although, the School Board voted more than a week ago to approve a contract with charter officials, it came with conditions.

Ty Manieri, an attorney with Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, represents the public school district in its negotiations with the charter organization. He presented the Board-approved contract more than a week ago, requesting details on enrollment terms, school purpose, mission, student assignment, teachers, further staffing, facilities, transportation, extracurriculars and additional funding.

He asked Charter officials supply the information back by May 24, the date of the next School Board meeting.

Considering the slow pace of negotiations up to this point and seeming inability for the two groups to get in front of each other and hammer out basic details at a public forum, I’m not holding my breath that both entities will be in lock step by the end of next week.

Under a contract approved by the School Board earlier this month, Louisiana Premier Charter would open in year 1 with 50 students per grade in kindergarten through eighth, and 75 students in ninth grade. The charter would then add one grade a year, starting in year 2 with 75 student spots earmarked for grades 10th through 12th as the school grows a grade level each year.

Basic facts like when the school will open and where it will operate are unknown.

Considering St. John the Baptist Parish is under a longstanding desegregation order, any public school must receive Justice Department backing and be OKed by a federal judge.

To even begin that process, the Charter School and Public School Board must jointly submit a signed contract. That hasn’t yet happened, meaning the federal process hasn’t even begun.

The lack of a consensus could force the entities’ relationship to break apart before it even starts. Louisiana Premier Charter has the option of appealing to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and seeking approval as a Type 2 Charter School, meaning cooperation with the St. John Public School Board would not be necessary.

Such an agreement would, in essence, put the two entities at odds, strip the local school district of funding and open up enrollment for charter students to outside St. John the Baptist Parish.

The other major question is where will the school be located. This has become a chicken-or-egg question between the parties. The Public School Board says the location is needed to sign the contract; charter officials say they can’t fiscally lock down a location until they have contract.

Louisiana Premier has a tentative agreement to operate at 3556 W. Airline Highway through a lease from Lifehouse Church — where Reserve Christian used to operate. However, that site is no more set in stone than any other school house in our parish, according to officials on both sides of this contract agreement.

If the two sides ultimately break from their attempts at a Type 1 joint contract, this, I feel, will be the breaking point. Hopefully, next week’s school board meeting leads to more answers. The parents and students of this parish deserve them.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.