Mercedes Schneider is an English teacher at Slidell High School in St. Tammany Parish on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In recent years, she has emerged as a prolific and vitriolic anti-education reform blogger. Her favorite targets for abuse are the Recovery School District and Common Core. As a result, Mercedes has become a favorite of Diane Ravitch, who often brings attention to Mercedes’ work on her blog.
Click on the link below to read a post I wrote in response to one of Mercedes’ pieces in Huffington Post on Louisiana’s School Performance Scores that was riddled with errors.
The one thing that is clear to anyone who’s attempted to read Mercedes Schneider’s blog is that she’s angry: angry at John Merrow, angry about Common Core, angry about evolution, and angry at Teach For America, along with a whole host of other things. However, she reserves her greatest fury for t…
Schott Foundation Under Microscope In Federal Investigation of Gillum Campaign Grand jury issues subpoenas for information from Schott, Opportunity to Learn Action Fund
Subpoenas issued by a federal grand jury in Florida suggest that the FBI has launched an investigation into the gubernatorial campaign of former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost a close election for the Sunshine State’s highest office to Republican Ron DeSantis last year.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, federal investigators are also exploring Gillum’s ties to two Massachusetts-based anti-education reform organizations – the Schott Foundation for Public Education and its affiliated 501(c)(4), the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund – and have demanded information about Schott CEO and president John H. Jackson and board member Sharon Lettman-Hicks.
Tax filings show that Gillum was a member of the board of directors of the Schott Foundation as recently as June 2017. He concurrently served as president of the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund (OTLAF), which is directly controlled by Schott, although he did not earn a salary in that role.
This isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about Gillum’s conduct. In August 2015, a year into Gillum’s tenure as mayor of Tallahassee, the FBI launched an undercover corruption investigation of the city government. Although Gillum was never directly implicated, three city officials were eventually indicted on racketeering, bribery, extortion, bank fraud, and wire fraud charges.
It subsequently emerged that Gillum had accepted tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” as well as a free hotel room from an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a real estate developer during a 2016 trip to New York. In April, Gillum paid a $5000 fine to settle charges related to the Hamilton trip brought by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
A closer look at the Schott & Opportunity To Learn
The recent subpoenas mean that Gillum’s settlement with the ethics commission may not mark the end of his legal troubles. They also bring a new level of scrutiny to the inner workings of the Schott Foundation.
The Schott Foundation’s self-declared mission is “to develop and strengthen a broad-based and representative movement to achieve fully resourced, quality PreK-12 public education.” In reality, Schott works in lockstep with the national teachers unions in three key areas. First, it provides grants to anti-reform groups such as the Network for Public Education, Alliance for Quality Education, Annenberg Center for School Reform at Brown University, and UCLA Civil Rights Project.
Furthermore, as I explained in a 2017 op-ed in The Seventy-Four, Schott organizes and underwrites trainings for its nationwide network of grantees, many of which focus on messaging and communications strategy. Finally, Schott engages in policy development and advocacy, and has published dozens of reports opposing charters, accountability, and standardized testing.
Read my piece in The 74:
The 74 is moderating a panel Wednesday at the 24th annual California Charter Schools Conference in Sacramento, about inaccurate narratives surrounding public charter schools and how the mainstream media covers, and occasionally distorts, the sector. (Livestream will start here at 1:45pm EST.)
But the strange thing about the Schott Foundation is that it’s not a foundation in the traditional sense of the word. Its most recent available tax filings reveal that Schott has less than $9 million in assets, and unlike other philanthropic foundations, it makes very little revenue from investments. In fact, a review of the Schott Foundation’s tax returns between 2013 and 2017 indicates that the vast majority of its revenue comes from outside contributions and grants (97% of total revenue in F.Y. 2017) and it tends to spend only as much as it takes in. All of which suggests that Schott primarily serves as a conduit for other people’s money.
Annual financial reports to the U.S. Department of Labor show that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) have given Schott and OTLAF a total of $1,330,000 since 2011, although the overwhelming majority of that money ($1,275,000) went to the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund. Moreover, tax records indicate that AFT and NEA’s contributions accounted for more than 99% of OTLAF’s revenues between 2011 and 2017.
Opportunity To Learn tax filings raise questions, shine light
A review of those same tax records raises questions about the organization’s accounting practices. For example, OTLAF’s tax returns state the organization had no revenue during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, 2012.
However, NEA’s 2012 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that the union made two $150,000 contributions to the organization in October 2011 and March 2012.
There is a similar discrepancy for OTLAF’s 2016 tax filings, in which the organization reported only $60 in revenue.
Once again, this conflicts with AFT’s 2016 annual report to the Department of Labor, which indicates that the union gave Opportunity To Learn $75,000 in August 2015.
How the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund actually spent the funding it got from AFT and NEA also invites scrutiny. Of the nearly $1,285,000 in revenue the organization received between 2011 and 2017, OTLAF reported that it spent 52% of that money ($671,673) as “Other Expenses” on their tax returns, a category which encompasses what are more commonly known as overhead costs. This appears rather high given that the National Council for Nonprofits says that the normal range for overhead rates is 25-35%.
But perhaps the most interesting revelations in Opportunity To Learn’s tax returns is who received the $535,000 in grants the organization distributed during the same period. In F.Y. 2017, OTLAF gave $45,000 to Massachusetts Jobs With Justice Action Fund and $10,000 to the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. On its tax return, OTLAF stated that these grants were made in support of Save Our Public Schools, a referendum committee that opposed Question 2, a ballot initiative that sought to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts.
It just so happens that both Jobs With Justice and the New England Conference of the NAACP joined the Save Our Public Schools campaign, which raises the question of whether AFT and NEA used the OTLAF grants to buy the support of those organizations.1
OTLAF also made grants to organizations involved in the effort to defeat a 2016 constitutional amendment that would have created an “Opportunity School District” in Georgia with the power to takeover perennially failing public schools.
Furthermore, OTLAF gave $100,000 to underwrite the anti-reform documentary, “Backpack Full of Cash,” which was narrated by Matt Damon. The film has been heavily promoted by AFT and NEA, which makes sense, since they essentially paid for it via Opportunity to Learn.
It should be noted that the grand jury subpoenas issued to the Schott Foundation and Opportunity To Learn Action Fund do not necessarily mean that those organizations are officially the subjects of an FBI investigation. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from the grand jury probe in the coming weeks and months.
Pro-Tip: Don’t Confuse Mayor With Emperor LaToya Cantrell weighs-in on OneApp while trying to take money from public schools
UPDATE: 5/16/19 – A new fiscal note attached to Senate Bill 110 estimates that an increase in the City of New Orleans’ tax collection fee from 2% to 4% would cost the Orleans Parish School Board “an additional $8,600,000 beginning 2019-20 and increasing annually to $9,600,000 by 2023-24.”
On Friday, the Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s newly-established Office of Youth and Families issued a statement on OneApp, the system that families use to enroll their children in New Orleans public schools. The move was puzzling for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Mayor Cantrell has no authority whatsoever over the school system, which is governed by the seven elected members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), an independent public body separate from the City of New Orleans.
Given that fact, the Mayor’s decision to officially weigh-in on OPSB’s enrollment process could understandably be viewed as both inappropriate and unhelpful, particularly from the standpoint of OPSB. (Can you imagine how the Mayor would react if, say, the Jefferson Parish Council issued a public appraisal of the Sewerage & Water Board?) Indeed, OPSB leaders spent much of last week trying to dissuade the Mayor’s office from issuing the statement. Sources with knowledge of those discussions say that the Mayor’s team solicited feedback on various drafts of their press release, but refused requests to nix it altogether.
What did the Cantrell Administration have to say that was so profoundly important that it was necessary to press on over the objections of OPSB? Not a whole hell of a lot. The 380-word press release issued on Friday is heavy on platitudes, devoid of real substance, and dripping with condescension.
Consider, for example, this quote attributed to Emily Wolff, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, which serves as the centerpiece of the statement:
“We need to double-down on working to create more high-quality seats for all of our city’s children. I urge the OPSB, policy leaders and educators to work to adapt best practices to more schools and better communicate with families about the diverse array of school choices available to them.”
Create more high-quality school options? Employ best practices? Communicate with families? My god, what revolutionary ideas!
Apparently, the Mayor and her staff believe the city’s education policymakers, school leaders, and teachers have been aimlessly scratching around in the dirt for the past fifteen years. Perhaps she hadn’t heard that the post-Katrina New Orleans school system improved faster than any other school district in the country. Maybe Mayor Cantrell also missed the release of a new study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, which found that New Orleans schools are outperforming the state on academic growth.
In spite of this progress, she would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local education community who doesn’t recognize that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to improving schools. In just the past few months, OPSB Supt. Henderson Lewis announced that four low-performing schools would be closing at the end of the school year. It’s hard to comprehend how the Mayor could look at that and draw the conclusion that the district is resting on its laurels.
If the Cantrell Administration is really serious about “working to ensure the system works better,” it can start by staying out of the schools district’s affairs. There are plenty of issues within the Mayor’s purview that need to be addressed, such as the recent spike in juvenile violent crime, the dearth of after-school programming for New Orleans youth, or the fact that public schools often have to close due to problems arising from the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
Tackling these challenges would be a vastly more helpful than admonishing – and by extension, insulting – the education professionals who are working to improve our city’s schools every day.
Oh, one more thing…
Do you want to know what’s even more insulting? While Mayor Cantrell is insisting the district “double-down” to expand high-quality schools, she’s surreptitiously trying to seize a bigger chunk of OPSB’s tax revenues.
Under current state law, the City of New Orleans is responsible for collecting property and sales taxes in the parish. The city then gives the Orleans Parish School Board its share of the money minus a 2% fee, which is intended to cover the costs incurred by the city to collect the taxes. However, Mayor Cantrell is aiming to increase that fee and has enlisted her dear friend, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, to get the law changed.
Senate Bill 110, which was filed by Peterson in March and is currently awaiting a final vote in the Louisiana House, would revise the law to allow the City of New Orleans to raise its collection fee from 2% to 4%. An extra 2% might not sound like much, but consider that OPSB’s gross tax revenues in F.Y. 2018 were $169.3 million. If OPSB had been charged a 4% collection fee, $6.8 million in school funds would have been siphoned off into the city’s general fund. In fact, if S.B. 110 becomes law, it’s estimated that schools could end up losing $75 for every student they serve.
That isn’t pocket change and it’s not hard to imagine that school leaders, parents, and other community members might take issue with the fee hike. That may explain why the Cantrell Administration hasn’t exactly advertised the fact they’re gunning for a bigger slice of the tax pie. While the Mayor has been candid about the city’s need to raise revenue, and has offered several possible options toward that end, their proposal to increase the tax collection fee has been left unmentioned. Moreover, sources say that the Mayor’s office didn’t even give OPSB a courtesy heads-up about their plan to pursue a fee hike in the legislature. Instead, district officials only found out about the bill last week, after it had already cleared the Senate and was working its way through the House.
As Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out in an op-ed hilariously entitled, “Mayor Cantrell, apparently serious, boasts of her transparency,” the Mayor “gives the public information on a need-to-know basis, and generally governs as if we never do.” It seems she’s using the same approach in her dealings with the Orleans Parish School Board. Even though the Cantrell Administration insists its “committed to working with OPSB,” when the Mayor interferes in the district’s affairs and tries to seize millions in OPSB funds, it looks a lot more like she’s working against it.
Maybe it’s time for folks in the #CityOfYes to send a message to the Mayor: When it comes to our public schools, she should #JustSayNo.
Read Senate Bill 110:
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