As CEO of Community Education Partners (CEP), a private, for-profit company that is contracted by public school systems to run alternative schools for kids found to be disruptive, Richardson has negotiated with public-school officials in Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia. He didn't even try to court New Orleans, Richardson stresses: former superintendent Al Davis sought him out, and he tried to discourage Davis. But now, he complains, "false allegations" that have dogged CEP in Texas have followed the company to New Orleans.
Richardson says Davis convinced him that he could negotiate a contract between the Nashville, Tenn.-based company and New Orleans Public Schools. At its facilities, CEP says, kids can simultaneously be removed from regular schools -- where teachers complain they disrupt their classrooms -- learn behavior skills, and make significant academic progress as well.
On June 10, the Orleans Parish School Board voted 4-3 to approve an $8.7-million annual deal with CEP; no contract has been set, though, and interim Superintendent Ollie Tyler -- who assumed the post after Davis resigned in June -- has said the proposed draft contract is going to need some tweaking. Tyler did not return calls to Gambit Weekly for comment.
Richardson, in his office at CEP headquarters, says that despite the vote to proceed, he's frustrated at the reception his company has received in New Orleans. Most of all, he's annoyed at the claim that the board voted on the CEP proposal without much public participation. A steady parade of New Orleanians had made the trek to Houston to visit the two CEP campuses there and to talk to CEP administrators, parents, teachers and students.
"Over 200 people from New Orleans have visited the school in Houston, so it's not exactly been a deep dark secret," Richardson says. "The next thing I know, we were asked to come to a board meeting."
That was on June 10. Richardson says that CEP hadn't signed up to speak at the meeting, and so he and other company officials had to listen in silence to what he calls false perceptions about CEP. "For two and a half hours there were many allegations about the organization that were simply not true," he insists, "and for some things, there was a level of truth to it, but the facts were so twisted. Much of what was being said in that meeting was coming from this one publication."
"This one publication" is the Houston Press, the alternative weekly in the city where CEP signed a contract in 1997. Since CEP came to town, the Press has run a series of articles critical of CEP, quoting parents, students, former employees and others. The articles by reporter Wendy Grossman and Press editor Margaret Downing, and columns by Downing (which are archived at www.houstonpress.com), combat CEP's assertion that its facilities are safe, structured learning environments.
Instead, the Press paints a picture of schools that are little more than glorified warehouses -- including one campus located in a renovated Wal-Mart building. Too many teachers are uncertified, the Press reports, and many are verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Added into this mix are an overinflated budget, falsified grades, poor supervision, insufficient teacher training and a mandatory 180-day policy that is punitive as opposed to rehabilitative, and is often inappropriately or illegally extended.
The paper often refers to CEP's founders as well-connected Republicans and GOP donors with more political experience than educational background. Current U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was superintendent of Houston schools when that system first brought in CEP; former President George H.W. Bush Sr. attended the dedication of the first Houston CEP school.
Richardson responded to the articles with a detailed "fact sheet" refuting their reports. "It was alleged that a local Houston paper did negative stories on CEP," the document reads. "The paper referred to is an alternative, free weekly paper focusing on sensational reporting. Much of this paper's revenue is derived from sexually explicit ads and solicitations." CEP says the stories included "unsubstantiated allegations" and that the Press refused to publish CEP's written responses.
Downing declined comment for this article. The paper's managing editor, George Flynn, says the Press stands by its reporting.
"It is correct that CEP made written responses to the allegations after each story, and those came in the form of letters to the editor herself, not to our Letters to the Editor column," Flynn says. "Each time we have responded to CEP, telling them that we will run the letter if they want, and there's never been any reply. ...
"As to the other stuff about us being an alternative free weekly with revenue derived from sexually explicit ads and solicitations, the information we used has come, in large part, from sources that are impeccable," Flynn says. "The latest story, for example, was about an investigation into CEP by the Texas Education Agency, and I don't think they have revenue that's derived from sexually explicit ads and solicitations. Other things have come, for example, from court documents and testimony."
The letters Richardson sent to Downing are lengthy, some containing line-by-line refutations of Press articles. One letter requests that the paper "please publish this response," though others do not specify that they are meant for publication.
Richardson believes the Press simply has it in for CEP. Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers who has been cited by the Press as being unduly influenced by CEP, agrees. "I saw the attitude of the Houston Press start forming the day they sent their first reporter out," she says, adding that a stint at CEP did wonders for her godson.
Richardson vehemently denies the paper's claim, for example, that Houston school board member and CEP consultant Larry Marshall gets paid $72,000 per year for 48 days' worth of work, and that his dual role is inappropriate. He says Marshall is paid a $3,000-per-month retainer and does not vote on CEP issues for the board, so no conflict of interest exists.
And the school atmosphere as described in the Press -- "chaos, anarchy, physical and emotional punishment, and mind-numbing boredom" -- is ludicrous, says Richardson.
Richardson says he would speak with parents interviewed by the Press, but they refuse to talk to CEP officials. "I can understand that no parent wants their child sent to an alternative program; that is a sign that perhaps the parent hasn't been effective as a parent," Richardson says. "No parent is happy when their child comes, because it's a failure. ... The child isn't happy, either, but most parents tend to try to give it a chance." He says he gave approving letters from parents to the Press. "We never heard that they contacted any of these parents," he says. "None of these parents were quoted." He also says the paper has not printed retractions from a former CEP administrator who was quoted in the Press alleging grade inflation at a CEP school.
Richardson rails against the notion that students are "forced" to stay for mandatory 180-day sentences, saying that the school system, not CEP, gives each CEP student a term based on the offense -- from as short as 30 days to as lengthy as 180. If the student has not made enough academic or behavioral progress to warrant returning him or her into a regular classroom, the term is extended, he says. "The goal is to get the student to function when he goes back, and not go through the same cycle," Richardson says. "We're paid the same whether the child is there for two days or 200 days."
He also defends CEP's contract prices, saying the community benefits in the end. "We do get paid more than the average," he says. "Our goal is to take the most disruptive students from the public schools, and get them on track in learning and behavior so they can return to schools and be successful," he says. "That is the genesis of CEP. If we are merely a holding pen or warehouse, why should anyone want us?"
Richardson does, however, agree with the Press' assertion that CEP consultant Gordon Anderson had said CEP staff turnover was too high, that teachers were underpaid, that staff selection wasn't rigorous enough, that CEP's new teacher training was inadequate, and that CEP's largely computer-based curriculum should be modified to include more teacher-pupil interaction.
"He absolutely said those things, and guess what I did? I hired him to fix it," maintains Richardson, who says that Anderson had also written a memo critical of CEP's grading system and its communication with the school district, among other things. "We put him in charge of operations, and our purpose was to address the issues he found."
CEP didn't get a great response in Dallas, either, acknowledges Richardson. In that city, it wasn't so much the media as it was a school system that was resistant to change. "There are those who are going to defend the status quo and will tear down anyone who wants to effect change, and when you have the might of a school district -- a billion-dollar school district with career folks who do not want any changes and a P.R. department who is determined to make you look bad -- it's very easy."
In 1998, CEP inked a five-year, $50-million-plus contract with the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) under then-Superintendent Ruben Olivarez. When Olivarez resigned in 2000, DISD and its new superintendent, Bill Rojas, re-examined the CEP contract, and decided the system had spent more than it could afford. Rojas, however, was fired not long afterward. In January 2001, under an interim superintendent, Texas state comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander began an extensive audit of DISD. By June, the district had hired Superintendent Mike Moses, who is still the DISD chief. Rylander completed her audit, which said the CEP contract wasn't favorable to the school system.
Moses and CEP officials spent weeks in tense contract negotiations, and the two sides were still at an impasse on Aug. 15, 2001, the first day of classes. Moses kept about 700 students out of CEP while contract talks waged on. Two weeks later, after CEP had agreed to reduce the contract by about $4 million, the students returned to the CEP facility. Last month, though, Moses announced the district would terminate CEP's contract three years early and would buy out the CEP facility for more than $10 million.
"What we had in Dallas was simple," Richardson says. "There were individuals in Dallas who didn't want us there, and did everything they could to keep the program from being implemented."
In June 2001, the Dallas school system published a report on CEP that found that "the program continues to do a poor job of providing an adequate learning environment," and that "serious consideration must be given to the negative consequences" that CEP has on students. "We violently disagreed with that," Richardson says, calling it a result of "what career people can do to you if they don't want you there."
Richardson says he fears similar headaches in New Orleans because of the current fluctuations in the school system's leadership. The United Teachers of New Orleans has spoken out against the CEP proposal. Union president Brenda Mitchell says the union began criticizing CEP last year, but was largely ignored by school administrators and the media.
"How loud do teachers' voices have to be before someone listens to us?" Mitchell asks, saying the union has some tough questions about CEP's curriculum, its teacher training, its interaction with the school district, and the amount of money New Orleans Public Schools plans to spend on the CEP contract. "I think it needs to be customized for this district, and a lot of questions we asked early on are still worries. I'm happy we're talking about it now."
Union spokesman Joseph DeRose echoes concerns about CEP's for-profit status and cites the Dallas contract situation as one reason why New Orleans should proceed with caution. "How much of that money is going to go to the company for profit? And who's getting that profit?" he asks. For his part, Richardson has come to expect controversy. He says the reason is because CEP is so different from traditional educational approaches. "The pioneers catch the arrows," he says. "And we believe we have a pioneering program."