Why Does a “Turnaround” District Need to Purchase Buildings?
When the Recovery School District (RSD) was formed, it was supposed to “turn around” schools and return the schools to the original districts:
Intended as a mechanism for restructuring and reform, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent part of the public school governance landscape in New Orleans. Instead, the RSD was meant to take control of and turn around chronically failing schools for an initial period of five years. After that time, and assuming adequate school improvement, schools would be released from the jurisdiction of the RSD and returned to their local school board. [Emphasis added.]
RSD is now purchasing property by way of a “corporation” headed by John White.
On August 13, 2013, the monthly BESE agenda included the creation of a public benefit corporation (PBC) “on behalf of the Recovery School District.” The information presented to BESE highlights the use of such a corporation to transfer property to the PBC in order to earn tax credits.
But there is more.
The board of this PCB is State Superintendent John White, BESE President Chas Roemer, and RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard. No outside board members. No balancing of power:
The RSD is requesting that BESE authorize the State Superintendent of Education to create a PBC for the Recovery School District. The membership of the board of the PBC will reflect the governance and oversight of the RSD, and will be comprised of the State Superintendent of Education, the Superintendent of the Recovery School District, and the President of BESE. [Emphasis added.]
BESE could have requested that more stakeholders be included on this board. It did not do so. Instead, it approved that vast corporate power be delivered into the hands of John White and three others whom he appoints– one of whom is himself:
The State Superintendent of Education be authorized and empowered on behalf of the PBC to adopt Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws for the PBC;
The State Superintendent’s appointment of the following persons as the initial directors of the PBC: the President of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Superintendent of the Recovery School District, and the State Superintendent of Education; and
The State Superintendent be authorized, directed and empowered to take all further actions and execute and deliver, all further agreements, instruments, certificates and documents which may be necessary to create and establish the PBC, fund the PBC, and carry out the PBC’s purposes, including but not limited to the acquisition and development of property, leasing of school facilities, and transfer of property and school facilities. [Emphasis added.]
John White has the power to enter into business arrangements openly via his corporation. He can buy and sell property. He can transfer school property to whomever he chooses.
Let that sink in.
It’s part of the Louisiana Codes and Statutes RS17:100.10:
Such public benefit corporations shall be created for the purpose of entering into agreements and engaging in financing arrangements to plan, renovate, construct, lease, sublease, manage, and improve schools and school property within the jurisdiction of each respective school board. [Emphasis added.]
BESE has just signed away its “power of attorney” where RSD facilities are concerned. White is known for his intense efforts to bypass BESE. Instead of publicizing anything remotely related concerning RSD facilities to an 11-member board at a monthly meeting, White now has carte blanche. He can even appoint himself and two others to purchase $5.4 million in property “for RSD” without a word from anyone else. If the other two PBC board members object, he could remove and reappoint.
Within days of the creation of the PBC, RSD has made a purchase. As such, this transaction has “shady” written all over it:
The Recovery School District is moving forward, quickly and unilaterally, to buy the former BellSouth call center in eastern New Orleans to renovate into a school. That makes for an unexpected deviation from the $1.8 billion school building master plan, and it is causing tension with the community and leaders of the city’s other school system, the Orleans Parish School Board.
Until recently, few people knew the Recovery School District could even buy property. Stan Smith, interim superintendent of the Orleans Parish school system, was surprised to hear it Wednesday, as was School Board President Ira Thomas.
Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard himself found out only a few days ago. But from there his team moved quickly to persuade the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to set up the necessary shell corporation to handle the purchase. The state board agreed on Wednesday. [Emphasis added.]
If Dobard “found out only a few days ago,” how is it that the BESE agenda item includes a footnote, “Backup materials providing additional information will be uploaded to BoardDocs by August 7, 2013, upon completion of final review by legal counsel”?
(See addendum at the end of this post for backup materials. See also BESE member Lottie Beebe’s comment regarding blindsiding with PBC materials at the last minute.)
Sounds like Dobard’s “team” brought him in to conceal those actually leading this effort.
The “shell corporation” is the PBC created to handle the purchase, a $5.4 million “deviation from the $1.8 billion master plan” thrown together in mere days. But it sounds altruistic:
The BellSouth building is at 6767 Bundy Road. It did not flood during Katrina but has been vacant since the storm. Talbot Realty lists the 210,000-square-foot, 10.7-acre property for $5.4 million.
Until recently, the Recovery School District had been planning to demolish and rebuild the Gaudet elementary school at 1200 Hayne Blvd. The cost: about $23 million.
Now, however, administrators say that for the same amount of money or maybe $1 million more, they can simply renovate Gaudet plus buy and renovate the BellSouth property into a kindergarten-12th grade school. The BellSouth building would accommodate as many as 1,900 extra students in the part of the city that has the most children, alleviating the long bus rides that are such a sore spot with families.
Both systems, the state-run and local ones, were moving together to buy the BellSouth property earlier this year. In February, the Orleans Parish School Board gave nonbinding approval. But in May it reversed course, with Thomas criticizing what he saw as the Recovery School District’s failures. [Emphasis added.]
Alleviating bus rides for kids. Bypassing protocol is fine so long as one can claim that it is “for the kids.”
The state is purchasing property with zero community involvement via its freshly-created PBC. Of course, the transaction is too “urgent” to bother with stakeholder inclusion:
Dobard said the state district can’t wait any longer. BESE doesn’t meet again until October, and the community development block grant that the district wants to use expires in December if the money isn’t assigned to a site. … Dobard acknowledged he didn’t vet the plan through the community but said time is of the essence. [Emphasis added.]
If I say my plan is “urgent,” then I get to disregard any input. Just trust me. Never mind that October precedes December by two months.
Besides, who needs BESE now? They signed over their rights to White’s corporation.
Parents, this is “for the kids.” You are like BESE. Your input is not needed, either. The PBC knows what is best.
RSD is purchasing its own property. Such is certainly not the work of a “turn around” district.
If RSD were a successful turnaround district, it would have made itself obsolete by now.
Instead, eight years later, we have a sudden purchase of prime real estate by the state in order to expand RSD operations.
Who will have access to this building?
Likely, charters. The sister of BESE President Chas Roemer is founder and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPSA). Chas Roemer pushes charters, and his sister benefits. My guess is that she will benefit from this $5.4 million “deviation” from the “master plan.”
Roemer Shirley has made herself visible in the Milwaukee op/eds defending her charters and their supposed superiority. She cites the recent CREDO study results as proof. However, the CREDO study includes no details on actual school scores. Instead, it presents a number of “significant” findings and makes the unfounded jump in logic that the longer charter day makes students who attend charters “outperform.”
No detailed evidence on this, mind you. No way for the public to examine the average scores for charter vs. non-charter. Just take our word for it.
If RSD charters are such beacons of pedagogical success, why are RSD charter school letter grades in the toilet?
The 2012 school performance scores show that RSD charters fare embarrassingly poorly. As a district, RSD-NO has a D. Yet Roemer Shirley is quick to point out that RSD-NO is almost exclusively charters.
Meanwhile, John White is holding back the 2013 school performance scores from the public.
He also refuses to post a comprehensive list of ACT scores by district.
I believe that White is withholding these scores because RSD appears to be what it is: A colossal state-run failure.
Nevertheless, he refuses to properly monitor RSD charters.
White has also contracted with Teach for America for $1.2 million in order to stabilize TFA presence in RSD. In the contract White states that he expects TFA to actively recruit alumni from across Louisiana for leadership. Coincidentally, BESE member and New Orleans TFA director Kira Orange-Jones is now traveling the state on behalf of TFA.
John White has no intention of “turning around” RSD. In his mind, RSD is here to stay. He will do whatever is necessary to make RSD permanence a reality– even con BESE into making him CEO of a PBC so that he might orchestrate a $5.4 million purchase in a matter of days and make it play out like the idea came from RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard, who “only found out a few days ago” that he could make million-dollar purchases on a whim.
This is only the first purchase. Certainly both Roemer Shirley’s charters and TFA will benefit from this PBC creation.
At my school. I need to pre-file a purchase order for anything over $50.
Then again, I am not a reformer, and I work at a real, regulated, public school.
I received the information below in an email from Lee Barrios, who attended the August 13, 2013, BESE meeting. She spoke to BESE member Lottie Beebe the evening of August 16 for clarification and updates. Here is Barrios’ resulting email to me. I have bolded key information:
I just spoke with Lottie Beebe and she reminded me that she was added to the PBC because she objected to it. Roemer or somebody suggested that since she didn’t trust them they would put her on the PBC. She figured they thought she would decline the offer and she figured she had better accept so that somebody would know what was going on.
Lottie reminded me that the “backup materials” mentioned in the agenda were sent to the Board prior to the meeting but that she hadn’t read them. The agenda packet provided to the press and the public (which I have in my hands) did not include the extra materials (see below). I see it is now attached to the agenda on line but I don’t remember it being there when I first studied the agenda. I don’t know when it was added on line.
(Schneider’s Note: The supplemental information indicates that the PBC purchase of the BellSouth building is for KIPP charter schools.)
If you read the agenda brief and then compare it to the full three page addendum you will see that the public brief version excludes some wording and does not make the action clear. There is no mention of the specific Bellsouth purchase. In fact, it goes out of its way to mislead and deletes the word “the” in front of “property” several times.
The printed original agenda item 5.3 is presented as a “recommendation: Authorize”. Then the summary of recommendation or proposed changes:. . . . Does not allude to the specific purchase of Bellsouth. On the other hand, the document below is not presented as a “Recommendation” to BESE. It is a request which typically goes to the Superintendent and the Superintendent/LDE either recommends it to BESE or does not recommend. This is obviously meant to mislead. The full document below makes it clear that the superintendent is the SOLE member of the PBC:
That the Superintendent shall be, and hereby is, authorized and empowered in the name and on behalf of the RSD, as the sole member of the PBC, to appoint the Board Members as the initial directors of the PBC as follows: the President of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Superintendent of the Recovery School District, and the State Superintendent of Education (collectively, the “Board Members”) shall be the initial directors;.
All one has to do is compare the two documents to see the effort to mislead the public and BESE. I believe the archived video of the meeting will support that.
(Schneider’s Note: “archived video” of the BESE should be available soon via the BESE website. Also, see BESE member Lottie Beebe’s comment below regarding blindsiding of last-minute distribution of hard copies of PBC info.)