As the rest of the city focused on the Super Bowl this past weekend, officials at Lusher Charter School had their minds on high school football – and potential injuries that their students could face next school year.

Recent division changes made by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association pose a “danger” for students at Lusher and other schools in the city, board president Blaine LeCesne told school officials during a meeting Saturday.

Specifically, LeCesne said he was worried that the Lusher team will be matched during the regular 2013 season against schools like John Curtis Christian School, which he described as a “football factory” that won its 25th state championship last year.

“It’s like playing LSU,” LeCesne said. “It’s highly irresponsible, and it doesn’t consider student’s safety when they allow mismatches like that to occur.”

The athletically “mismatched” teams will play each other in the regular season because the LHSAA last year passed a resolution saying that schools could play up one division, according to Lusher high school principal Wiley Ates — meaning that smaller schools will be able to play bigger schools, if they choose.

Both Lusher and Curtis are in the same division this year, according to Ates. Lusher has more students enrolled in its school, but fewer than 50 students on the football team, Ates added, while John Curtis’ team is ranked nationally with more than 100 kids on the roster.

“All they’re looking at is whose turf to protect in terms of win/loss record,” LeCesne said about the LHSAA. “I think it’s shameful. It’s all about winning, not student safety.”

Lusher and Curtis may now be more likely to play each other during playoffs because the LHSAA has grouped private, parochial and charter schools, or “selective schools,” into a newly formed league separate from that of public schools, according to Ates.

“We now will be looking at playoffs with some of the best schools in the state,” Ates said.

Ates added that Curtis is “selective” because of the school’s football team, while Lusher is selective because of high academic achievement.

The issue came up at the end of a board meeting that had mainly focused on audit problems and changes to be made within the school’s employee benefit plans.

During the meeting, Riedlinger announced that Lusher planned to extend health benefits to employees’ same-sex partners, but wanted to address the plan with the board before implementing the change.

The board voted to pass the changes, regardless of potential cost or how many new enrollees will be on the plan, because, according to LeCesne, “it’s the right thing to do.”

“Even if there were some cost ramification, we would have done it anyway,” LeCesne said.

The changes will take place after July 1, according to financial officer Lynden Swayze. The changes are now possible because of recent changes to the school’s health provider policy and Louisiana law.

For same-sex couples to enroll, they have to pass certain “life commitment” qualifications, such as being able to prove that they share financial responsibilities.

The board also passed a resolution to contribute about $104,000 to a $960,000 financial plan devised by the board and the Orleans Parish School Board and the charter board to renovate Lusher’s Fortier campus.

According to LeCesne, the OPSB will contribute the remaining funds to secure the building stabilization plan that includes fixing the plumbing, replacing water fountains and intercom system repairs.

The meeting started with the review of the fiscal year 2012 audit, which was marred with problems resulting from an employee stealing $25,000 last year.

According to a police report obtained by the Lens in late December, office employee Lauren Hightower forged Riedlinger’s signature on six checks to embezzle money for herself and others.

The controversy caused the school extensive problems, according to Swayze, including tardiness in submitting documents for the audit because of issues in finding a replacement for Hightower and reconciling financial records.

The school also failed to track $407,000 in federal grant expenses, the Lens previously reported.

To prevent future theft and audit problems, Swayze said the school has put in place heightened security measures, including a safe for checks, which only she and Riedlinger have access to.

“It was a rough year,” Swayze said, choking up as she spoke.

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...