by Sara Pagones | The New Orleans Advocate | September 23, 2018 at 5:45 P.M.
Anne Ogden, a Covington parent whose efforts to get a French immersion program started for kindergarten and first-grade students in St. Tammany Parish schools ended in a court defeat last month, is appealing the decision by Judge Raymond Childress.
Ogden sued the St. Tammany Parish School Board in March, claiming that she and other families had met the requirements of a state law that says school systems must provide French immersion programs if the parents or guardians of at least 25 students going into either kindergarten or first grade file a request in writing by March 1 of the previous school year.
Ogden’s suit said she had presented the school system with a petition that included the electronic signatures of the parents of 36 children about to enter kindergarten and 27 going into first grade.
But the school system created an application form seven days before the deadline and told her she was responsible for getting interested parents to fill it out. She claimed the form was designed to harass and intimidate parents and she was not able to get enough of them to sign it.
Childress, of the 22nd Judicial District, said in his ruling last month that the requirements set forth in the form are “onerous” but that they reflect what is in the state statute and are “necessary for any school board to make the commitment necessary to create a foreign language immersion program.”
Ogden’s attorney, Charles Branton, said Thursday that in his reasons for judgment, Childress “implicitly approved the waiver form that they created at the last minute.”
Among other things, the form stated that there would be a lottery for places in the program if more than 25 children applied. However, because applying parents had to waive their child’s right to attend the school whose attendance district they live in, there was concern that getting shut out of the program would mean getting shut out of the nearest school and getting nothing in return.
Branton said Childress did not address the issues that had been raised by Ogden. For example, he said, the state law makes no provision for a lottery and does not specify an application form, nor is there a provision in state law for parents to waive their child’s right to a free and public education.
“We will take it up to the 1st Circuit (Court of Appeal) and, if necessary, the (state) Supreme Court and ask them to rule on those issues,” Branton said.
The state law sets a minimum of 25 students for an immersion program, he said, not a maximum.
Ogden said that La Foundation Louisiane is helping pay the legal costs for the appeal.
“I’m just hopeful that the parents don’t give up,” Branton said.
He said that he contacted the School Board’s attorney a month ago to ask if the form for next year is available but was told that the district didn’t have one yet.
Branton said he has approached several legislators to see if they will help change the law to specify a form to be used. The law was recently changed to also require Spanish immersion programs upon request, he said, but those changes also moved up the deadline for parents to apply, from March 1 of the previous school year to Jan. 31.
“What kills me in this, if you look at our school system, St. Tammany always says, ‘We’re one of the greatest around,’ ” he said. “They have a $418 million budget this year, but they can’t find money for a couple of classes to enrich children and allow them to compete internationally.”
The school system did not respond to a request for comment.
This story was altered on Sept. 24,2018 to reflect that La Foundation Louisiane, not CODOFIL, is helping to pay for the appeal and that the new deadline to submit petitions for creating language immersion classes is Jan. 31.