Schools
 

Theft from school may cost school its independence

The embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars from an independent New Orleans public school could jeopardize its lone-wolf status.

Acknowledging that it needs tighter financial controls, the nonprofit board that runs Langston Hughes Academy will vote in coming weeks on whether to hire a charter management organization, FirstLine Schools, to take over operations at the three-year-old Gentilly campus. If the board chooses FirstLine, management of the K-8 school’s finances as well as its day-to-day logistics will fall to the new operator.

Although the charter would not be transferred immediately to the new operator, FirstLine has made it clear to the current operating board, NOLA180, and the school community that its intention is to eventually absorb the school into its own board-run network.

“We are more interested in having Langston Hughes join the network,” FirstLine CEO Jay Altman said.

The longtime educator said that the organization allows its campuses to run “pretty autonomously,” which would give the school the power to retain traditions like calling teachers “dreamkeepers” that students and parents don’t want to see go.

“We have a set of guiding principles that our schools adhere to,” Altman said. “At Langston Hughes, they are already following them.” At its most basic, what this means is that an independent school founded in the first round of post-Katrina charter  conversions would itself be converted to a member of  a burgeoning network of charters that includes Arthur Ashe Charter School, Samuel J. Green Charter School and John Dibert Elementary.

“We’ve been through a lot and now we need stability. FirstLine would bring that,” said Andrew Sullivan, a teacher at the school. “Will there some slight changes, yes, but will we retain a good deal of the LHA spirit and way of doing things? Absolutely yes.”

The move could set a precedent for charters struggling with financial management.

“For schools that don’t have the wherewithal to handle the back office work it is incumbent upon them” to secure that expertise, Folwell Dunbar, academic director of charter schools for the Louisiana Department of Education, said.

While the state plays only an advisory role in management of individual charters, all charters in Louisiana must after three years of operation submit to their authorizing board reports on school performance, financial management and adherence to their charter contract. The board, which in Hughes’ case is the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, votes on whether to renew the charter for another two years, give a one-year extension, or in the instance that a school is not meeting state standards, throw it back under the direct control of the Recovery School District. Next month, the school is one of nine charters due for that review.

The embezzlement incident is being taken “very seriously” as state education officials write their own evaluations of the schools and make recommendations that will be presented to BESE, Dunbar said. The state charter office adviser said he expects that Hughes will be granted a one-year extension if it shows significant commitment to  “greater financial accountability.” He declined to comment specifically on the FirstLine proposal, saying that the decision was for the NOLA 180 board to make. New Orleans BESE representative Louella Givens did not return calls for comment.

Langston Hughes Academy was the first New Orleans public school rebuilt from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina, moving in August from a post-storm campus of trailers into an impressive two-story building equipped with the latest in high-tech education gadgetry and clad in windows.

The new building’s paint had barely dried when the nonprofit board that runs the school discovered money missing and reported it to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Shortly before Thanksgiving break, the school’s former business manager, Kelly Thompson, was booked on charges of theft and the school’s founding father and CEO, John Alford, resigned, though he was never fingered in the criminal investigation.

In February, Thompson told a federal judge that she stole $660,000 from the school to support a gambling addiction. On Thursday, she was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

“I am glad to see that justice was served,” said school president Kathleen Padian. “She was stealing money while telling teachers that there was no money for books. This was a despicable crime.”

But with a week left to go before summer vacation and no final decision made on the school’s future, emotions have been running high this week at the school. Police escorted one angry mother out of a Tuesday public meeting. Another mom has collected 100 signatures from parents on a petition calling on board members to resign because of a board motion to reduce the number of administrators at the school and residual anger over perceptions that John Alford, a beloved figure, was forced out unfairly.

“The board is not being fair to the parents,” said the creator of the petition, Kowana Lyons. “All we want is our kids to keep getting the education they are getting.”

At a board meeting Thursday evening FirstLine and the board attempted to assuage these concerns from parents.

There are no signs that any of the school’s teaching staff would be let go if FirstLine comes on. All teachers performing up to standard have been offered contracts to return, Padian said. What hasn’t been decided is how being absorbed into the larger network would affect school administrators and contracted service workers such as bus drivers, janitorial and cafeteria staff who, if the new operator takes over, would be the responsibility of the managing network.

“There are certain operational questions we can’t answer until we get a better look at the contracts and see how satisfied the school is with what they are getting,” FirstLine CEO Altman said.

Altman said that “most educational and staffing” issues are done by the network’s individual schools, not the organization. He said that the nonprofit normally takes 12 percent of a school’s per-child funding to pay for contracted and operational costs. The management fee would be dropped to 8 percent for Hughes because of the school’s tight financial situation.

“All of the money goes back to the schools,” Altman said. “None of it is accumulating in the central office.”

The move to a new charter operator is emotional for parents and teachers who have feel as if they have built the school from the ground up with the organization.

“I saw the little sign ‘Langston Hughes’ in the ground and I called the number,” Lyons recalled. “I love NOLA 180. Mr. Alford recruited every student who is there and they have teachers who are really working hard for our children.”

“Them children ready to picket or do whatever it takes to keep it the way it is. Dream it. Do it. Be it. That is our motto,” she said, repeating the school’s slogan.

A 26-year-old alumnus of Yale University and Teach for America, Sullivan has been at Hughes since the school was setting up in trailers and its leaders pounding Katrina-damaged pavement recruiting students for the school’s first year. He wears a cheery red school T-shirt on his days off and can be found at the school on Saturdays discussing things such as grading rubrics or seventh-graders who curse like sailors under the influence of bounce music.

Sullivan sits on a board committee that has spent the last half-year searching out leadership to replace Alford. Though sensitive to fears from parents and teachers that the school’s character will be lost in the transition, Sullivan says the greater risk is losing the school completely.

He says that the high-profile theft at the school could weigh more heavily on the BESE renewal vote if the state body does not see a strong management team emerging at the school.

“We’ve heard we will be renewed. On the other hand if there is strife and uncertainty…” he said, his voice trailing off.

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