In the Charter School System, Who Comes First: Students or CEOs?

Photo courtesy of Enroll NOLA

Big Easy Magazine covered the last public school in New Orleans being turned into a charter school and the fears of parents in “Charter Schools and Race in New Orleans”.  As the last public school in New Orleans was officially turned into a charter school, many parents professed fears, suggesting that part of the reason charter schools and the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) had been allowed to turn the entire city’s public schools into charter schools was partly based on racism. Some dislike their children being part of an educational experiment in the efficacy of the charter school system.

Whether their fears have been justified, it is certain that many questions continue to arise regarding oversight and transparency and, not least of all, salaries and expenditures. The question remains, what are charter schools actually doing? According to some, much of what they’re doing makes them worthy of an F.

Examples include a recently-leaked memo that showed a directive from a board member at Mary D. Coghill Charter School directing staff to give only passing grades. The same board member, who has now resigned, has also been involved in possible misappropriation of funding and other staff members’ actions have been called into question.  Mary D. Coghill Charter School is run by Better Choice Foundation, Inc.

At John F. Kennedy Charter School, they’ve had a similar issue, with one instructor being told to provide passing grades to students regardless of their success or participation in the course. In the case of JFK school, the “whistleblower” was subsequently dismissed; others, including administration members, have resigned. And while the OPSB has issued a statement of apology, calling the situation egregious and disappointing, thus far the charter organization New Beginnings School Foundation has not been punished for any culpability. As of June 21st, the OPSB says the investigation is ongoing.

With all of these and other controversies ongoing, it’s important to ask whether New Orleans’s children are being put first, as the OPSB claims, and whether the taxpayers of New Orleans are getting their money’s worth; whether the current board is holding up their end of the bargain as far as taking responsibility for student’s well-being. Ashana Bigard says the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Ashana Bigard is a member of Erase the Board Coalition. She is a former contractor with FFLIC (Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children), and is a parent activist, with children in the charter school system. According to her, “The coalition was formed in response to closing down schools” and replacing them with charter schools. Members of the Erase the Board Coalition include: Step Up Louisiana, People’s Assembly, and the NAACP Algiers Chapter, along with other organizations and many individual parents. Their avowed mission is to elect school board members who will follow the Louisiana Constitution which requires them to directly run and govern schools.

One of Ms. Bigard’s children goes to Bricolage Academy Charter School. About that, Bigard says, “Bricolage has seven top administrators; just those seven people make over $600,000 and only one of them has a degree in education.”

The following information was provided by Erase the Board who received the data through public record requests.

Charter schools spend a surprisingly large amount on administrative staff. For the sake of comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a government organization that keeps track of various employment data, the median income of a high school principal, is around $95,000. Compare to some of the top-heavy administrative salaries across New Orleans charter schools.

  • Jamar McKneely, CEO InspireNola Charter $309k inclusive of benefits, vehicle and travel allowance, etc.(2019)
  • “Mickey” Landry, Executive Director Choice Foundation Charter $245k plus benefits (2019)
  • Henderson Lewis Jr., OPSB Superintendent $350k plus $116k bodyguard and other benefits (2019)
  • Kathy Riedlinger, CEO Lusher Charter School $262,778k plus benefits (2014)
  • James Fulton, Director of Finance Choice Foundation Charter $200k plus benefits (2019)
  • Susan Jurkunas, Principal at Lafayette Academy Charter $146,500 plus benefits(2019)
  • Kate Mehok runs several failing schools as CEO of Crescent City Charter Schools $168k(2014)
  • Gary Robichaux, CEO of ReNew Charter also runs several failing schools for $175k(2014)
  • Shawn Toronto, Principal Einstein Charter $187k plus benefits (2014)
  • Maya Wyche, Chief Talent Officer Firstline Charter Schools $120k plus benefits(2019)
  • Sivi Domango, Director of Culture Firstline Charter Schools $102,947k plus benefits (2019)

…but a Reading Specialist makes $36k and a 4th Grade(testing grade) teacher makes $42k.(2019)

In case you are wondering what benefits are for these administrators, they often include thousands in a vehicle allowance, thousands in travel allowance, medical, and retirement. Here’s a summary list of InpireNOLA’s agency head, Jamar McKneely.

Erase The Board Coalition

Nevertheless, the textbook budget comes in at a much smaller $180,000 for students going to six different schools. As far as textbook availability goes, Bigard says, “We have to look at how our money is being spent. And we have so many schools that don’t have books…while the CEOs and CFOs, and top administrators are making six-figure salaries, and it’s just kind of insane.”

Erase The Board Coalition

As you can see in the above document, for Year-Ending Budget 2019, Educational Services have been cut by over $100,000. Workbooks for Classroom Use were cut by $15,000; Special Education by almost $5000; Library technology/software expenditures were down by almost $20,000.

In the chart below, for InspireNOLA Charter Schools, the comparative budget shows that Regular Education expenditures were down by approximately $800,000. Other Education expenditures were down by $900,000. Overall Pupil Support Service expenditures were down $44,000.

Erase The Board Coalition

Contrast those amounts with a MILLION dollar increase in Administrative Staff budget as seen below, the $200,000 for Community Event Rentals, the nearly $50,000 for mobile phones and you’ll see why many believe the Charter School budgets are top-heavy in the extreme. The staff at Big Easy Magazine would love to say that despite all these difficulties and contentions, that charter schools are in fact educating children. But we are speaking of a system that is a business first. It is, therefore, not beyond comprehension that, as with most businesses, CEO and administrative staff compensation is a prime consideration.

When profits are put before people, children may or may not receive an adequate education, while administrators will always have full pockets. And as the recent scandals show, these businesses may be less than transparent in covering up their own infractions, lest they be held accountable.

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