Schools
 

Former head of charter group led by school district employees may return to public employment

The state ethics board appears poised to clear the way for the former CEO of a charter group formed by Orleans Parish school district staff to return to the district.

Until early March, Nicolette London worked for the Orleans Parish School Board, overseeing its last five traditional schools.

On March 2, she quit and took a job as CEO of ExCEED Charter Management Organization, which was in the process of trying to take over those schools.

Four people who worked under her at the school district were also named on ExCEED’s application, which was ultimately unsuccessful. They continued to work for the school district.

As The Lens reported at the time, those ties raised questions of conflict of interest.

In general, people must wait two years after leaving a government agency before working for it as a contractor if it involves the same job duties. They must also wait two years before being paid for work involved with a “transaction” that they dealt with while employed at their government agency.

The school district said it created a firewall between district officials considering charter applications and staff, including London, who could be involved in the charter effort. The school district did that based on a lawyer’s advice.

But the school district did not seek advice from the state Board of Ethics, which issues official opinions to guide government bodies when ethical questions arise.

Robert Scott, who heads the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, told The Lens the district should have done that if there was enough concern to create a firewall.

London ended up running ExCEED for just six weeks. Her last day was April 19, the day ExCEED withdrew its application to take over the schools, according to a letter she wrote to the state ethics board.

In that letter, dated June 7, she asked the ethics board if anything in state law would prevent her from resuming her 24-year career at the district.

“Any potential position with OPSB is contingent on receiving an advisory opinion from the Board of Ethics affirming that there are no issues with my re-employment at OPSB,” she wrote.

The draft advisory opinion released Wednesday would allow her to do so.

It notes the prohibitions on employment after someone leaves public employment, but says the state Code of Ethics would not prevent the school district from rehiring London.

ExCEED’s ill-fated bid was closely tied to the district from the start. In addition to London and the others who worked in her office, the schools’ principals were also involved. They pitched families on the benefits of chartering the schools and intended to remain at their respective schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run. To retain their charters, they must meet academic, financial and organizational standards.

Some of the central office employees, including London, came to meetings where Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. spoke in favor of chartering the schools. At the time, ExCEED was the only known contender for the schools.

In line with its advice in a similar situation, London resigned from the district days before the group submitted its application.

In her letter requesting the advice, London wrote, “I did not assist ExCEED in a transaction or in an appearance in connection with a transaction with OPSB during my employment with OPSB.”

She also stated, “ExCEED ultimately decided not to apply for a charter and never entered into a contractual relationship with OPSB.”

That’s partly true.

ExCEED did apply to charter the schools in March. But after receiving a poor review, and the day before Lewis Jr. was scheduled to tell the school board whether it should approve the application, ExCEED withdrew from consideration.

In the end, the school district handed one of the schools ExCEED sought to another charter organization, announced plans to close another one of the schools, and left the status of three others unchanged.

Asked if the school district was involved in London’s letter, spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said the district had nothing to say about “this individual’s decision to seek an ethics decision.”

London did not respond to a request for comment.

The ethics board will meet Thursday to consider the matter.

Update: The board decided that London was not prohibited from being hired again by the Orleans Parish School Board. (July 21, 2017)

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.