Schools
 

School district outlines ethical safeguards after Lens report on ties between central office and charter group

A week after The Lens reported that several Orleans Parish School Board employees are involved in a bid by a nonprofit group to take over the district’s last traditional schools, a district administrator outlined the steps it has taken to prevent any ethical problems.

Four employees who manage those schools for the district are involved in the bid by ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization. A fifth left the district two weeks ago to take a job with the charter group.

Their involvement raises conflict of interest questions. Public employees must wait two years after leaving their government jobs before doing business with their agency, if it’s tied to anything they worked on as public employees. While employed, they can’t receive anything of value from anyone seeking work with their agency.

For the past few years, the Orleans Parish School Board has invited applicants to turn its last five direct-run schools into charters, which are are publicly funded but run by private, nonprofit groups. The applications must be approved by the superintendent and the board. The district would oversee those charter contracts.

If the five schools are converted to charters, New Orleans would be the first city in the nation with no traditional public schools run by an elected board.

At a board committee meeting Tuesday, Chief Strategy Officer Colleston Morgan Jr. outlined the steps the district has taken to prevent problems.

“We of course in every year want to make sure we operate in accordance with [the] law and ethical standards,” he said. “This has become particularly important for us this year, given the nature of some of the applications.”

In December, school district officials sought legal advice about how to guard against ethical problems if anyone who manages the schools for the district were involved in a bid to take them over. That was spurred by a suspicion that the head of that office is involved in the ExCEED bid, which turned out to be correct.

Lawyers told them to make sure none of those employees are involved in discussions about the charter applications, according to Adam Hawf, chief of staff for the school district.

The district has not, however, asked for an opinion from the state body that handles these ethical issues. That’s what Robert Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said it should do.

“You want to make sure you go into this clean, with the best understanding possible of what the rules of the road are,” Scott told the Lens. “The public has a right to know why this is not a conflict of interest.”

The board members are apparently satisfied with the steps taken by the district. None asked any questions at the meeting about how the issue has been handled.

In an interview, only Leslie Ellison said she’s looking into the issues raised in The Lens’ story. Ethan Ashley said he had no comment. The other five said they don’t have concerns or hadn’t looked into the matter.*

Asked if he thought everything had been addressed, Ben Kleban responded succinctly: “Looks that way.”

Woody Koppel seemed unaware of how an ethical problem could arise from central office employees being involved in a charter school application. He said he thought that could be an issue for a school board member, however. He referred legal questions to the board’s attorney. A message left Thursday for the board lawyer wasn’t returned by publication.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics has said a school district employee could run into trouble by moving to a charter organization.

In 2006, a Recovery School District employee asked if she could take a leave of absence or quit her job to take a job with an organization applying to take over a school. The board told her she would have to quit her state job before the group submitted its application to run the school.

Its reasoning was that if the employee quit before the charter group filed the application, the employee wouldn’t be involved in the “transaction” — that’s how the law refers to these matters — while she was a state employee.

That’s what Nicolette London did. On March 2, she quit her job overseeing the Orleans Parish School Board’s direct-run schools. She accepted the CEO position at the ExCEED charter group that day.

Asked when she was offered the job, she responded, “I can’t give you a date. The latest conversation happened sometime …. I don’t know. I would say we signed it on the 2nd.”

She told The Lens she was unaware of any rules regarding employment after she left the district.

The Lens talked to London March 6, the day ExCEED submitted its application naming her as CEO. She hasn’t returned calls since.

The four other central office staffers named in the application remain employed. One of them is Meg Griffon, who took over for London after she left.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Griffon gave a presentation on the academic performance of the five schools. She said the schools had shown improvement on standardized tests given throughout the year.

Griffon was one of three certified teachers who supported ExCEED’s takeover bid, according to its initial letter of intent to convert the schools to charters. Also named on that part of the form were Shelia Banks and Toni Pickett. They, too, work in the office that manages the schools that ExCEED wants to run.

On ExCEED’s final letter of intent, their names were replaced by three principals at the schools.

All five principals are part of ExCEED’s bid — according to the school district, it was their idea to form a charter group — and they would remain at the schools under ExCEED.

“We have completely excluded certain employees from all aspects” of the application process, Morgan said at Tuesday’s meeting.

District employees can’t have any role in the development of charter applications, Morgan said, other than providing publicly available information.

ExCEED’s application includes the central office employees’ names, their job titles at the charter organization and their resumes.

Morgan also noted that applicants aren’t allowed to lobby or communicate with board members or the superintendent.

Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. plans to make his recommendation on ExCEED’s application at the board’s April meeting. The board can reject his recommendation.

*Correction: This story originally said that other than Leslie Ellison, board members said they don’t have concerns about the issues raised by The Lens or hadn’t looked into them. That was incorrect. Ethan Ashley responded, “No comment.” (April 20, 2017)

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