The New Orleans education community was taken by surprise on Monday, when the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced that educators at Lusher Charter School had formed a union.
An AFT press release on the move stated:
“Educators at Lusher made public their commitment to stand together as the United Teachers of Lusher, an affiliate of the United Teachers of New Orleans and the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers delivered to management a petition of union support signed by a majority of teachers, teacher assistants and other certificated staff at Lusher. They are now calling on management to recognize their union and move forward with negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.”
As the Times-Picayune noted, it is unclear when Lusher’s faculty held the organizing vote or how the votes split.
Great news in New Orleans! Teachers as Lusher formed a union! https://t.co/d7vW1rFW2Z
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) April 11, 2016
Nevertheless, Lusher’s decision means that three schools – or 3.6% of all public schools in the city – have chosen to organize since Hurricane Katrina decimated the ranks of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), once the largest AFT local in Louisiana.1
Ironically, it also means that two of the three New Orleans schools organized by AFT are selective-admissions charters under the Orleans Parish School Board. Lusher and Ben Franklin High School, whose teachers formed a AFT-affiliated union in March 2015, have long been two of the highest performing schools in the city, thanks to their ability to screen students. Those policies also help explain why both charters serve a disproportionate number of white, affluent families.
Much of the surprise over Monday’s announcement stems from the fact that Lusher is already in the midst of a nasty legal battle over a proposed change in the way public schools are funded in the city. The plan would allocate funds based on a weighted formula that more accurately reflects the added costs of serving English Language Learners, and at-risk and overage students, and children with special needs.
Lusher and a handful of other selective-admissions charters would likely see a slight decrease in their annual funding under the new formula since they serve relatively few special needs and at-risk students. Nevertheless, officials at Lusher are steadfastly opposed to any reduction and filed a lawsuit in federal court last month to block the plan.2
Union Has Been Lurking, Waiting To Pounce
It’s unclear what role, if any, the funding fight played in the decision by Lusher staff to unionize, but what is certain is that the American Federation of Teachers has been waging a long-running campaign to discredit the substantial academic gains made by the city’s public schools in the union’s absence.
It’s also become apparent that AFT and its state and local affiliates have been quietly lurking on the sidelines looking for opportunities to organize the city’s charter schools, presumably in an effort to eat away at the reforms from the inside out.
Over the past year and a half, AFT has been hiring organizers to target charters in the Crescent City and they’ve been popping up in the most unexpected places. A few weeks ago, for example, UTNO organizers hijacked the end of a performance at ARISE Academy put on by Dancing Grounds, a local non-profit that partners with schools to provide dance instruction to students, to tell its audience of teachers and parents about the benefits of UTNO membership.
Furthermore, the union has put substantial resources behind organizing efforts in the city. According to the American Federation of Teachers’ 2015 annual report [see below] filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, AFT’s national office spent a total of nearly $2.7 million dollars in Louisiana between July 1st, 2014 and June 30th, 2015 (note: this figure does not include spending by state and local affiliates like the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and UTNO). The report further shows that nearly $355,000 of that total was earmarked for the “AFT/UTNO New Orleans Charter Organizing Project.” AFT also provided UTNO with an additional $143,000 in F.Y. 2015 to cover “release time organizing expenses.”
— LouisianaFedTeachers (@LaFedTeachers) November 7, 2015
When taken together, it means AFT allocated nearly a half a million dollars for organizing efforts in New Orleans in the past year – a surprisingly large amount for a school district in a right-to-work state where the teachers union has been pretty much dead since 2005. It should also serve as a warning that AFT still poses a threat to reform efforts in this city. The substantial progress we’ve seen in our public schools in New Orleans over the past decade directly contradicts the teachers unions’ pessimistic message that poverty trumps all. That’s why the unions fight so hard to malign the transformation of our public education system and that’s why we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that they wouldn’t tear it all down if we gave them the opportunity to do so.
A Sibling Dispute In Court Could Spell Trouble for Smothers Academy Charter School's CEO Is Accused Of Financial Impropriety In Lawsuit Filed By Brother
The CEO of a local charter management organization, which was investigated by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) after a report on this blog raised questions about its management and financial practices, is being accused of financial impropriety in a lawsuit filed by his own brother.
On March 28th, I published a post – “Red Flags Everywhere” – which highlighted troubling issues at Smothers Academy, a Type 2 charter school in Jefferson Parish. It noted that the school appeared to be in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism, seeing that Smothers Academy’s CEO Damon Smothers had hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement. The piece also drew attention to several concerns surfaced in Smothers Academy’s F.Y. 2017 audited financial statements, including the assertion that Damon Smothers had spent over $9300 on the school’s credit card for personal expenses.
Read my original piece on Smothers Academy:
A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.
A week later, LDOE officials sent a letter to Eddie Williams, president of the board of directors of Smothers Academy, requesting documentation related to the problems identified in their audit. On April 17th, LDOE sent a second letter to Williams, which formally notified the board that Smothers Academy was in violation of the state’s nepotism laws and instructed them to terminate the employment of either Damon or Kemic Smothers by June 30th. As a result, Kemic was fired that same day.
Yet it appears that he is refusing to go without a fight.
Court documents reveal that Kemic is now suing his brother Damon (along with Smothers Academy, Inc., two members of the board of directors, and the school’s CFO Mark DeBose) for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge, and fraud.
In a petition filed with the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July, Kemic claims that he was summoned to an April 5th meeting with his brother and CFO Mark DuBose in which they revealed that Damon had “gifted himself” $20,000 drawn from the school’s bank account without the knowledge or consent of the board of directors. They then asked Kemic to devise a way for Damon to keep the money without having to inform the board or repay it. However, Kemic refused, noting that the unauthorized allocation of funds was almost certainly illegal.
Kemic goes on to assert that he was subsequently terminated on April 17th – as opposed to June 30th when his contract officially ended – for refusing to help Damon hide the $20,000 he had taken from the school’s bank account. According to the lawsuit, “Damon Smothers insinuated that Kemic Smothers was not a team player and that he should have found a way for Damon Smothers to avoid repaying the $20,000.00.”
It should be noted that accusations made in Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit are simply that: accusations. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, in light of the board’s lax financial oversight and Damon’s questionable use of the school’s credit card, these latest allegations should be investigated to ensure that Smothers Academy administrators are not enriching themselves at the expense of their students.
Read Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit against his brother:
Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education
On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.
Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.
For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
Dear Board Members,
In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.
On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.
Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.
These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.
In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.
Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.
Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.
If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA
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