reports from a local parent monitoring public education in New Orleans

Louisiana House of Representatives Education Committee – Written Testimony Regarding Education Matters: On The Current Condition of Education in New Orleans

Amelia Lafont, Orleans Parish public schools parent
PO Box 51153, New Orleans, LA 70119

Written Testimony Regarding Education Matters:

On The Current Condition Of Education In New Orleans

Louisiana House Education Committee

Submitted May 1, 2008

Dear Honorable Louisiana Legislators,

I am testifying today to thank you for your concern for our Orleans Parish public schools, to ask for your leadership in governance, and to provide you with information and perspective regarding this matter from a New Orleanian parent’s perspective. I will also share with you specific items to illustrate the dynamics we are experiencing here. I pray that you will take a closer look at what is actually happening in New Orleans and factor in local input when developing a mechanism to ensure accountability on the part of our State of Louisiana education systems and personnel. Please consider the following information:

1. To allow the RSD more time to control Orleans Parish schools is to reward them for their failure to stabilize the schools. The RSD has not succeeded, it has only created perhaps the appearance of succeeding, and this appearance does not withstand close inspection. To allow the RSD to continue to operate in this manner and allow them extensions would diminish your credibility in requiring accountability from all school systems in Louisiana.

2. RSD has worked to institutionalize itself by bulldozing through implementation of its experimental plans, and has not focused on returning functional schools to local governance. The proposed extension rewards their disregard for their organizational purpose and keeps our community under transitional leadership instead of stable, transparent, accountable local governance.

3. When the schools were seized from New Orleans, the “failing grade” standard was increased to capture virtually all of our schools. Now the RSD wants to keep them longer, while pursuing overly aggressive, impractical, and not-community supported demolition, sale, reorganization, and new construction plans, yet the RSD is not meaningfully working with community groups across the city to improve schools.

4. The Superintendent of Education must have rigorous oversight. It is inadequate to allow only BESE members to appoint members of the proposed RSD Advisory Committee. There is already far too great a concentration of power and access to decision-making, which is continuously excluding genuine community voices.

5. Direct stakeholders should be allowed to participate in the process at all phases. The people served by the RSD, Orleans Parish families, educators, and community members, have never been represented on the RSD Advisory Board. From Katrina- to – present, the RSD Advisory Board has been composed of BESE insiders, Baton Rouge ladies, and one non-RSD local parent.

6. The requirements of Act 35 have not been met for community input since the RSD’s inception. The irregularly held “public” RSD Advisory Board meetings have been conducted in such a way to completely exclude the public from meaningful participation. Mr. Pastorek has continuously facilitated these meetings. At these meetings, the “Advisory Board” has been given lengthy presentations of basic materials, some discussion, catered lunches, and “public comment” is reserved for the last 30 minutes only, with questions and comments generally only being received and not responded to at that time. No meaningful dialog with the public attendees is any part of these meetings.

7. I have personally witnessed Mr. Pastorek, while facilitating RSD Advisory Board meetings, to discourage and disallow valid calls from the stakeholder public for accountability and meaningful participation on multiple occasions. When members of the public ask ‘What is going on here?’, Mr. Pastorek moderates the conversation either to a personal level (inappropriately) or away from the topic (without accountability).

8. RSD’s “Parent Advisory Committee” is a false committee. It met once, and the agenda was forcefully abandoned by RSD staff who had us do a “vision” exercise instead of documenting the numerous suggestions being made to them about how to improve stakeholder relations. The Committee has not been called to meet since April 2007.

9. Some other “community participation” meetings are held in some communities and at RSD, however the meeting invitations are sent selectively.

10. Paul Vallas is not a “hero” and I respectfully request that our Honorable Legislature become informed of his background troubles and plans to leave soon to chase political ambitions elsewhere. I have heard him called “Mr. Arrogant” in public. It is clear to foresee that within two years he leave us with a construction and budget mess as he has done elsewhere, and he been accused of outright malfeasance and deliberate deception in huge budget matters. Mr. Vallas’s $2,000/day consultants cannot answer simple questions from the public. They cannot answer simple questions about what is happening tomorrow because they don’t know, they are getting on a plane. Be back in a week or so. New Orleans is tired of government contractors coming in and making themselves rich and famous over our situation and leaving more chaos and confusion in their wake.

11. The RSD has issued our Master Facilities Planning Contract to two firms. One is Parsons, currently under investigation by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction for indications of potential fraud and gross malfeasance in their performance: “The [Baghdad] police academy was supposed to be a showcase project, but it now epitomizes wasteful spending and incompetent oversight,” he said. “The administration said this mess would be cleaned up, but once again, the money was squandered and no one was held accountable.”

12. The other master planning company, Concordia, is politically and family connected yet widely disreputable for very poor quality work, and has a track record of grave contract failure in another Louisiana school district, which should have prevented them from receiving the current contract. Their performance is being widely criticized in New Orleans. Please see the supporting documents and the websites referenced for more detailed information. Parsons and Concordia pose potentially fatal, immediate treats to our schools and the integrity of our public school system through unnecessary demolitions, moving towards selling campuses for condos, and back-room deal making.

13. In the RSD’s governance and operations, nepotism and cronyism have flourished.

14. In Fall 2007, I met with the State of Louisiana’s Director of Charter Schools, and after reviewing my research he agreed that several charter schools were issued inappropriately, and yet matter-of-factly stated that we must live with them “because they are here now.”

15. I understand that NASCA, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, was given a contract by RSD to monitor the charters they authorized. Are you aware that NASCA is a membership organization, who awarded charters almost exclusively to their membership and sponsor companies?

16. There is no public accountability for charter schools on the ground. Some are known to be ‘disasters’ but parents have no mechanism to warn other parents if the school is failing other than word-of-mouth.

17. Charter schools have and are causing widespread problems which families are having to deal with individually, such as push-outs, lack of aftercare, lack of support networks, and lacks of experienced educators and people familiar with our children and recovery needs.

18. The charter schools are already full for next year.

19. Our schools are not racially integrated. Black children are isolated as a group and individual white children are being verbally and physically assaulted in charter and non-charter schools. This unchecked dynamic is causing all people to avoid RSD if they can, perpetuating racial divides. The State has not set a tone of tolerance and inclusion as expected in their takeover. Most New Orleanians desperately want racial equality and inclusion, but we are powerless to integrate ourselves without being able to influence the cultures and administrations of our schools.

20. RSD schools are very low quality, teaching to the “lowest common denominator”, thereby perpetuating a servant class. Teachers report this directive clearly comes from the top. They are not allowed to elevate their teaching, be creative, and individualize their methods to meet needs of different students. “The RSD will not allow us to do what we came here to do.” “They don’t trust us.” “I personally spent $3,000 on copies materials this year.”

21. Schools are ‘soft’ selectively admitting across town, and there no options for special needs kids.

22. There are no good high school options for regular folks, and the proposed trend-following ‘single-themed’ high schools will deny our kids the opportunities to be exposed to and learn varieties of diverse practical skills needed for survival and dignified work.

23. Families are struggling every day to bring their children to schools all across the metro area and to private schools. Everyone is extended so thin that people are not able to get adequately involved with their child’s education because of the extra strains the unstable system is putting on recovering families. The RSD does not provide minimal supports that are integral parts of everyday operations for school districts across the country, but not New Orleans. Local people who want to provide these services out of genuine interest in helping children are routinely alienated by RSD.

24. Families are separated from their children because of the RSD’s pervasive dysfunction. On my Bayou St. John street within 4 blocks, there are 3 different families who have children living elsewhere with relatives in order to not attend RSD schools, and over a dozen children leaving the neighborhood every morning to attend schools throughout the metro area. For many reasons I hope you can better understand, families find our neighborhood public schools less accessible than family separations and long commutes, including the additional costs of tuitions, supplies, rising gas and food prices.

25. Families who initially returned home and rebuilt are now leaving because of school problems. Two nice families I know, one black, one white, moved away this Spring 2008 because there were no good school options for their boys, one highly gifted and one mildly disabled. In Summer 2007, my close friend and my employer both moved away from the City for their children’s future, and I heard of many, many more such stories from 2006 to continuing now.

26. In consideration of Mr. Pastorek’s pay scale, I would like to respectfully remind you that he does not have a non-political education background, requiring him to extensively rely on others’ expertise in daily operational matters and for major initiatives. This greatly reduces the value the State gets for its money in such an expense.

27. With an attorney at the head of the Department of Education, the State is sending the clear message that it is more interested in deflecting lawsuits than investing in our present and future social stability. After Dr. Jarvis resigned under pressure, we learned that her only prior school leadership experience was a half-year as an elementary principal. Please consider the tremendous stabilizing value that leadership by a qualified, non-trend following, non-political educator would bring to the benefit of our entire State.

We do not consent to be experimented on. We request the State to allow us to apply what is already proven to work. Community groups across town have been researching best practices and are eager to apply them, but the RSD has not permitted access and maintained confusion and politicking through constant personnel changes. We cannot make progress in our communities so long as we are excluded from real decision-making and culture-setting in our schools.

The problems in our RSD charter and non-charter schools are creating individual family heartaches and widespread social dysfunctions as we cannot retain our valuable community members who chose to come home and rebuild, only to find the school system is still dysfunctional, and the problems are also preventing us from attracting new families and family businesses. This is not a “sustainable model.”

In neighborhoods across New Orleans, stakeholders are concerned because we have just been put through two obviously fake public planning processes where decisions were made before the processes began. The RSD, Mr. Pastorek, and Mr. Vallas are increasingly being identified aloud as direct threats to our City’s recovery, certainly not assets to any but the few who hope that all are not able to return, and/or that they may be able pick up a school-to-condo development project. RSD Leadership’s actions are benefiting a very few to the great detriment of the well-being of the City, and particularly harming our recovering families who want to do right. Please do not reward this behavior with your endorsement. In the City many barriers have been overcome through our struggles and we are focused and united now more than ever on proper treatment and opportunities for meaningful success for all of our children. Please allow us the chance to succeed through self-determination.

In New Orleans, we try to understand why it seems that State government often works against our well-being and against what we know best about our own needs. Intentional or not, the effects are the same, which is continued hardship for the general public. Please let this matter be the exception and perhaps a new example of leadership in true education accountability. Some friendly competition is positive, however competition when the ship is sinking means most of us will drown. Let’s make unity the rule and repair our ship together.

In closing, I ask to be notified of any future hearings on this matter. Please see my attached supplemental testimony, which is a report of research done to provide more detailed information regarding some of the above. Please contact me if you need further detailed information regarding any of these matters.

With Prayers and hope for the present and future children of New Orleans,

I Have Truthfully Sworn,

Amelia Lafont

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