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Audit: Ex-Lycee chief paid nearly $30,000 without board vote

After a budget overhaul and a change in principals, Lycee Francais’ board of directors probably could have anticipated the blemished audit they received at their monthly meeting Monday.

Though many of the issues resulted from policies and procedures that, according to the audit, have since been improved, the financial analysis revealed several shortcomings, including the school’s payment — without a formal contract or board approval — of $29,878 to former Principal Jill Otis for three months after she resigned in April.

“We did not observe any documented approval or authorization for these amounts to be disbursed,” the audit states about the payments to Otis.

Otis declined comment Monday night, saying she needed to look more closely at the findings.

The audit says that the school has since “implemented a process to remove terminated employees from the payroll register.”

Todd Tournillon of Postlethwaite & Netterville, the firm completing the audit, presented the documents to board members during their regular meeting Monday night, while an audience of more than 80 people looked on.

Tournillon noted challenges in the auditing process, as the administration had been completely overhauled since the end of the fiscal year.

Including Otis’ payments, the audit also found:

The school paid for a board member’s cell phone: The school paid $627 in cell phone charges for one school board member, though no such payment was approved by the board.

Former board member Tom Klingler confirmed Tuesday that the cell phone was his, though the audit does not name him. Klingler reimbursed the school for the cell phone charges, the audit says, but the matter was referred to the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

Board members are barred by state law from receiving compensation for their service other than reimbursement for actual expenses.

Klingler told The Lens Tuesday that when he took over as board chairman in April 2011  to fill in when then-president Andrew Abrams went on medical leave, Klingler assumed use of an extra cell phone because he was regularly conducting school business by phone. He said he procrastinated to return the phone after Abrams resumed his seat.

In a June 29, 2012, letter Klingler wrote to the Office of Parental Options about the matter, he said he did not use the phone in an attempt “to gain something of economic value from the school I helped get off the ground, whose mission in which I firmly believe and to which I have made both cash and in-kind donations.”

Lack of monthly financial statements: The board did not receive any monthly financial statements prior to October. The audit said such statements should be presented in a timely manner so as to avoid errors.

Complex payroll system: The report notes payroll was only overseen by one person, the business manager.  Employees did not have documentation of approved pay rates, and they were paid differently based on their work performed during each pay period, the report states.  No one checked payroll timesheets for accuracy. All of these factors, the report says, led to an overly “complex” payroll system maintained by one person.

Lack of spending oversight: The business manager was the only person to oversee disbursements. Three disbursements, totalling $2,500, could not be supported by documentation, the report states. Debit card use was consistently documented, but some online, retail purchases did not have proper documented authorization, the audit says.

The school’s audit was completed Dec. 28 and sent to the state before the Dec. 31 deadline, Tournillon said.

The Lens first formally requested the audit Nov. 26, when most charters were filing their audits. The Lens, however, did not receive a copy until Monday evening at the meeting.  A Jan. 8 email The Lens sent to financial director Julianne Ruocco regarding the status of the audit went unanswered.

Trying to close a budgeting gap

Ruocco, director of finance and operations, reviewed the school’s $2.8 million budget with the board Monday night.

She said $4,000 of the $10,000 spent by the school on board member training and resources from The High Bar had been reimbursed by board members.

Originally to be paid solely by board members, board president Jean Montes said at the training in October that not all members could afford it, so the school would cover the cost until members could repay it.

Ruocco reported the majority of line-items in the budget to be on track at the halfway point in the school year. She said the school was about $5,000 short on student fees paid for school materials. She also said the school was over budget in special education, mainly due to testing service costs.

“We have $1 million to make up,” board member Dan Henderson asked, “How will we do it?”

“I think it’s still possible to break even,” Ruocco said, saying some items are over budget while others are under. She said that changes in student enrollment would affect the school’s finances as well because the state adjusts its funding in February according to updated student numbers.

Development consultant Lora Reugger said that just over $15,000 in donations has been raised for this school year. Reugger said the school’s fundraising goal this year is $100,000. Thirteen percent of families had contributed so far, she said.

Ruocco said final adjustments in the audit brought the June 30, 2012 deficit to $78,853, about $7,000 less than the shortfall estimated last fall when the budget was rewritten.

Help with governance offered

In attendance at the meeting were three people recruited by state Superintendent John White to help the school find a new CEO and, they said, to review the school’s governance weaknesses.

Caroline Roemer-Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said this was the first time her organization has attempted such a project with a charter school.

Describing her involvement with Lycee as “crisis work,” Roemer-Shirley lauded the school’s academic standing and said it appeared to be improving financially. But what caught her attention, she said, were some clear issues with governance and leadership that kept creeping into conversations at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“What I’ve seen is a board that is taking on some roles and responsibilities that traditionally are not part of what a board should be doing,” she said.

Joining Roemer-Shirley were Raphael Gang, chief of staff at the state education department’s Office of Portfolio, and Jeremy Hunnewell of EMH, a management consulting firm, both of whom will be working with the school.

While Lycee’s board members shuttered themselves in a private room to talk about a defamation lawsuit filed recently against them by a former teacher, the three took questions from parents, teachers and others in attendance.

Parents raised concerns ranging from the school’s accreditation and board member makeup, to the board’s hiring practices and compliance with open meetings law.

Joyous Von Buskirk, one of the authors of Lycee’s charter, urged Gang for more oversight. “This is not a private-public school” said Von Buskirk, “this is a public school.”

Managing Editor for The Lens, Steve Beatty, asked the three whether Lycee’s board or the state would have to formally approve a contract or agreement to allow the groups to enter into the kind of work they said they planned to do with the school.

Roemer-Shirley said she wasn’t sure if it required a contract of some kind with Lycee, but said her organization is paying EMH, the consulting firm, through a grant.

No answer to parent group’s demands

While discussion at Monday’s meeting touched on the school’s governance and leadership issues, no one at the board table acknowledged the demands one group of parents made Friday in a detailed letter sent to board members and others, including the state Department of Education’s Office of Parental Options.

Calling themselves the Rebuilding Trust Working Group, more than a dozen parents demanded the ouster of two board members — Montes and Paige Saleun — and requested that the group’s concerns be placed on Monday night’s board agenda.

Roemer-Shirley did say during the Q&A session with parents that her private conversations with board members did indicate they have a willingness to make change, “including rolling off this board,” if warranted.

Neither Montes nor Saleun would comment afterward.

The parent group’s lawyer, Robert Rachal, spoke up during the forum stating there were a lot of upset parents, but the group wanted to resolve things “amicably.”

“We’re completely divided,” another parent said.

Nevertheless, parents seemed to be on board with Roemer-Shirley’s offer to help and a few sounded elated at her suggestion to give parents a “charter 101” sit down.

Rachal said afterward he was optimistic that many of the issues the parents raised might be addressed.

Board to hire attorney

Board members emerged from an hour-long executive session discussion of the lawsuit and approved a motion to allow Montes authority to engage the law firm Adams & Reese as counsel on behalf of the board of directors.

Jaimme Collins, an attorney for Adams & Reese was present in the executive session before the vote was taken.

The board meeting began at 6:40 p.m. and adjourned at 8:50 p.m.  All seven board members were present.

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  • D. Bagh

    Mm hm. No comments, indeed. Writing’s on the wall. Serious news for a serious situation. I can’t wait to hear the explanations for some of these items. Jill magically got $29K? Amazing.

  • kally

    No, this school just keeps getting special treatment.

    Is it connections by those on the board?
    Is is because of the schools demographics?

    The parents did not even get to speak last night and question the board for their actions when they leggally file a grievance petition. I guess they feel better because, as the board hid, Raphael Gang ( the man who has been protecting this very board they questioned for over a year) told them everything they wanted to hear ( though thru past actions you will see that he does nothing , but trust this very board the parents are being bullied by) or did the parents calm down because carolyn shirley made a veiled threat that they better get in line or have their charter revoked.

    This has become even more of a mess and the parents don’t even realise it.

  • Josh Reyher

    Kally,

    I am a parent and I don’t feel bullied by the board. 80 other parents have signed a letter stating that we believe Lycee is heading in the right direction.

    What do you mean by special treatment? If special treatment includes the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools providing resources to fix school governance great! We need to have 3 things to succeed: Solid Academics (our teaches are doing an amazing job teaching our children), sound financials (balanced budget with solid internal controls), governance. The school has some governance issues that we are working to fix.

    There is a lot of common ground in the Lycee community. I don’t agree with the filing of the grievance. I do however understand their goals and find some of them worthy of pursuing.

  • D. Bagh

    Josh:

    You wouldn’t get “bullied” by the board because you’re BFF with Paige.

  • Josh Reyher

    If working constructively with people makes me a BFF, fine. I trust in people’s professionalism to do the right thing. A difference of opinion is not a difference in principle.

  • kally

    Special treatment means that there are other schools having trouble in the State too, but only the lycee gets special unprecedented help from Mr. White and the LCSA. Do you see any others getting grants to help find a CEO because of board mismanagment for them?

    Why did’t they help Mays elementarty and so many others? Mays is also a school that only has very little ones and they went to BESE and begged for help. Schools beg for help each month and BESE just stares at them and does NOTHING.

    Again I ask, is it demographics? Is it Board connections?

    Were you are the BESE board meeting when Raphael Gang stood and lied to the BESE board members that Lycee had had ZERO problems with turnover the week that you lost your second principal and no office staff?!? Did you see him LIE and say the school was working something out with the mcmillians? Were you there when the Mcmillians stood up said what he was saying was not true?

    Your school is White. Why don’t the parents of Lycee demand a diverse school that educates other races and kids from less fortunate areas of town. Kids of all color. I don’t buy the excuse that they just don’t apply. I challenge the parents of Lycee to do this. I challenge them to put sweet olive to the test. Make this as one of your priorities and the school will take a big step forward with the community.

  • creole 65

    Could someone explain to me how it was legal to have the attorney that you are considering hiring present in an executive meeting of the board before he is hired?

  • http://thelens Joyous VB

    Mr. Reyher,

    Are you willing to email me a copy of the letter that has been sent with 80 parent signatures on it? Can you please send me a copy of Madame’s resume as I know that you have access to anything you want from this board? Perhaps you can allay my concerns and others about her experience and qualifications, as of this juncture the French teachers are more qualified than she to be the Director. I know that you are a strong supporter of hers and would want her credentials to be known by one and all to lay this issue to rest. Your 80 parents should not mind you sending me a copy of their letter, as they will not face any retribution from the board.

  • http://thelens Joyous VB

    Mr. Reyher,

    Forget about emailing me a copy of your parent letter because I just saw it on line with 62 signatures. I am still asking you to acquire a copy of Madame Giselle’s resume as I know it is in your power to do so. Sorry I had not seen the letter prior to asking you for a copy. Sometimes I am not as thorough as I hope to be. Thanks.

  • ALICE MIDKIFF

    Adams and Reeee, LLP for Board counsel?!!! Say no more. Politically connected law firm (PAC and Pastorek’s former law firm). High rollers and contributors to OPSB elections and re-election campaigns. This is exactly what the State wants and what this board will do. Counsel for Moton (cheating on state tests), Einstein (keep that RDS lease), Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools (oh no, you will not put charter schools on the {one App} before 2021), Algiers Charter School Association (sure, you can get rid of TRSL), New Orleans Charter Academy, New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy…Look it up on the Secretary of State website. Lee Reid (Adams & Reese)is/are registered agents for more non-profit boards than Carter’s has liver pills. ;-)

  • D. Bagh

    Josh :

    If you’re saying you don’t have a connection to Paige outside of the board, then you’d be hiding the truth.

  • Alex del Castillo

    I don’t have a connection with Paige. I will freely admit to knowing Montes outside of school as our kids have occasional play dates. To those wondering what is going on here and want the best for the kids and the school, you need to look at what people do, not what they say. The board members are not monsters. Some may be self interested in that they want a great school for their kids and are working hard to make that happen. Notice how Kalley (who is likely a disgruntled former board member caught behaving extremely unprofessionally -see that insinuation stuff sucks- I will take it back if he can prove he is not) is all about questioning motivations and connections? What about the fact that the board created a school in from nothing in which facilities and academics are not really the problem? This in spite of the fact that, as related above, some early hires were unwilling or unable to perform. When the working group start talking about bringing those folks back, it became completely apparent to me that this was not about the children. Most of their material concerns in the letter are governance related. The rest are personal. Re the former, White has sent the cavalry. It may be late, but they are here and want to see the school thrive, as I suspect most of the parents and teachers here do. But not all. Watch what people do, not what they say they will do or want. If you see someone obsessing over board composition rather than school operation and sustainability, then at best, their judgement and priorities are whacked. Now is the part where Joy will start shouting about having helped write the charter. Or Giselle’s resume. Always about “qualifications” usually handed out by their peers in the system. How qualified were predecessors? They failed to run things correctly and led to the Board having to step in. In the few weeks she has been here, special Ed is up and running and security is well on the way to being correctly implemented. Let’s give these guys a chance to make it work. And for the record, if the board is really against having Lycée graduate French Baccaluariates then I can be probably be persuaded to take issue with that. But that is a battle for later. Certainly not the closest alligator to the pirogue.

  • Josh Reyher

    Joyous & D Bagh we are slightly over 300 families. I hope to get to know everybody. And I do mean everyone. That is going to get harder as the school grows but what a great challenge to have. Have either of you gone to the the Friday coffees to get to know her? Have you shaken her hand and asked her about her experience? Did you see her spending her Saturday getting dirty with the dads as we painted and moved earth?

  • D. Bagh

    Alex:

    We’re accosting the board members. We’re specifically meaning Montes and Paige. I’ve personally met Paige. From the start we didn’t get along. God help me if I suggest answers for the greater good. It’s Paige’s way or no way at all.

    Josh:

    I see you’re not denying the relationship with Paige. Good to know.

  • D. Bagh

    Alex:

    Also, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be complaining, other than about two very specific board members, who, in all likelihood, won’t make it to the end of the year.

  • Josh Reyher

    D Bagh,
    At the Dec Rebuilding Trust Working group Ms. Joy Van Buskirk sat next to me. At the 11 Jan Rebuilding Trust Working Ms. Saleun sat next to me. First time I met both women of these women was at the Rebuilding Trust Working Group. Jean Jaque lived around the corner from my family. He has chatted with my family a couple of times. By your definition I am friends with all of them. Acquaintance may be a more accurate term but if you would prefer friend so be it. What does it matter?

    The audit was released not looking very favorably on the previous administrative leaders. Despite this I believe the Jean Jaque to be a smart and nice man. You have not answered my question have you taken the time to meet Giselle? What more do you want? Nobody is perfect, people make mistakes, they learn from them and they move on. We can arm chair quarter back things to ad nauseam. At this point we need to work with Ms. Roemer’s team and unite to find our CEO. Additionally we need to focus on the DIBELS, the new special ed team, and our capital projects. Accreditation will come.

  • D. Bagh

    Josh:

    The only qualifications Giselle should have include the ability to lead this school, inspire and support our educators, and keep the best interest of our children in mind. I have zero issues with her. I’ve zero issues with any of the actual school leaders or employees. I take great issue to micro-management and self-aggrandizing. As I’ve already said, Paige and I are not people who see eye-to-eye. She knows it. I know it. And anything I could say or do is met with the fiercest of reaction. I shut the hell up now, for fear of my child being removed for the most benign of reasons, much like her actions towards other.

    I suppose the online conversations I’ve read between you and Paige led me to believe otherwise. You don’t sound like strangers.

  • Jessy

    Alex, the closest alligator to the pirogue is DENIAL. It’s easy to say you support the school and to sign a sappy “parent” letter (which is comical because so many non-parents and board members signed it). But questioning is hard, signing a grievance letter with your REAL name is painful, and going against the establishment takes guts (and a lot of Zantac). Try just once going against what PS or JM say regarding something serious, and dare to press the issue. When you wake up the next morning you’ll find the slow assassination of your character will have already begun.

  • http://thelens Joyous VB

    Josh,

    It does not matter if I get to know Madame Giselle. I am glad to hear that she is doing her job and is there daily, rolling up her sleeves and getting involved in the tough work. Good for her. The point – is she qualified to do the job? If she is, why won’t the board release her resume? If indeed she is a good friend of three board members, but qualified that is a different story. I will then support her rain or shine.

    Alex and Josh-

    Does it make a difference that the Director of Academics is not qualified for the position? Yes, it affects accreditation for the school, if the school is pursuing such. I bet neither of you gave that one thought. That is why schools need educator involvement. So, Alex I will prattle on about her qualifications, in spite of your sarcasm.

    Once you change the mission of the school, there is no going back. The French teachers were told that the school is not actively pursuing accreditation. If the school does not work toward accreditation, the French government does not have to send French National teachers to LFNO. That means no French National curriculum. That means no French Bac. It is as simple as that. Both Audubon and EB are accredited by the French government in certain grade configurations. They will continue to receive French teachers from France. I hope that I am crystal clear. Now, the question is why might LFNO not pursue accreditation? These may be the reasons: (1) if the majority of the French teachers notify Codofil at the end of February they are not returning, the French government will probably not replace them. (2) the French government will probably not send teachers to fill the classes that are expanding to the next grade either. If LFNO is considered a toxic environment for teachers, why continue to send teachers that will leave at the end of the first year of their contract, and the accreditation also plays a role. If the board has recognized that there is legitimacy to my rationale, and I believe there is, what would they do to save face? Become a French Immersion school and hire American teachers. American French teachers will not be able to teach the French National curriculum so the result is an immersion school. LFNO, Audubon, and EB are French schools that teach the French National curriculum in French, and the Louisiana curriculum in English. French Immersion schools only teach the Louisiana curriculum in French. Now, what leads me to believe that immersion may be in the cards? A board member was quite vocal at the Rebuilding Trust Working Group meeting last week, and stated that LFNO did not need French government certified teachers, and that LFNO would be hiring American teachers. That board member stated that parents are happy with supporting hiring American teachers. I guess you who support the board are.

    NOW THE LIKES OF ALEX ARE STATING ADMINISTRATORS FAILED TO RUN THINGS CORRECTLY. How do you know? Oh, that’s right you got it from board members who are so skilled in best board practices that they can readily make those pronouncements to cover up their deficiencies. Perfect cover, administrators are gone and cannot defend themselves. Hence, the lawsuit for defamation, Alex, filed by a teacher who is now defending herself, not putting up with the board’s outrageous and unprofessional behavior. I would not be surprised if many more are to come. Board members, you say hired incompetent people right? Are you challenging the board’s expertise and judgement? Oh, that’s right two administrators with the combined experience of 48 years are incompetent according to the board, but board members collectively that have less than 10 minutes experience in K-12 classrooms and education do. They are such experts they are receiving rave reviews from one and all. News sites are writing glowing stories about their board capabilities and professionalism.

    The board did not set up procedures to vote on financial issues such as the Sweet Olive contract. It is required to do so. You show me Alex, where a board vote was taken to approve that contract, not once, but twice. That is an expenditure and requires a board vote. You show me where a board vote was taken for the severance package granted to the first CEO. You won’t be able to find either votes because they did not occur. Those are only two of many board votes that did not occur on financial issues but were required by law. That is why the auditing firm stated there was no authorization. Don’t prattle on about the failings of administrators, look to your leaders, and they failed abysmally. Yet, you have the chutzpah to condemn others that have been driven off by a rogue board, and then pat incompetent board members on the back. Demonstrates your sound judgement. You and your ilk make me sick because you are so dense. As far as the charter is concerned, have you bothered to read it? Guess not because you are an expert on all there is to know about running a school, along with your board members. Perhaps if you and they had bothered to read it, LFNO would not be in the embarrassing situation that it finds itself in today. Maybe there is a spot on the board for you. You would fit in perfectly. Sorry for my bluntness but I suffer fools poorly – who attack others who cannot defend themselves – especially when they do not know from whence they speak.

  • D. Bagh

    Bravo, Joyous VB. Screw the coffee, let’s go get a drink. :)

  • creole 65

    Joy, I want to say thank you for saying a lot of things I have not been able to say. I hope you realize that I was being facetious when I commented about my lack of smartness or money, as that was just a result a someones thumb holding me back. It’s only because of respect that I not say much of what I know to be facual. But you are doing a wonderful job in informing these prents about how thing should have been done. It seems to me, that lots of things were just common sense. After the first two board members, common sense flew out the window. What people for is that when Andrew took ill, it was a grave emergency for someone to come in and get the charter finished. Their was only two months to get a site and get a charter if I can remember. Lots of things were happening all at once. Furniture had to be bought, building had to pass inspection, walls needed to be painted. Everyone worked o make that happen . With the exception of the current chair and the mouth of the south. I never saw them with a paint brush or a broom. But anyway, thanks.