The leader of the Friends of King charter school system has hired six relatives, including at least two whose employment appears to violate state ethics laws that ban nepotism.
Chief Executive Officer Doris Roché-Hicks employs her sister, daughter, son-in-law, grandson and great niece. She also employs her son-in-law’s brother.
Three of those relatives, however, fall outside the restrictions against relatives because state law doesn’t consider them “immediate family.”
And Roché-Hicks’ daughter is covered by an exception that allows immediate family members of the head of a school system to work as a classroom teacher as long as she is state-certified and Roché-Hicks doesn’t take part in discussions about her daughter’s performance or participate in any financial transaction with her on behalf of the school.
Roché-Hicks, who has been an educator for close to 40 years, has been recognized locally and nationally for her work in New Orleans. She was principal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology in the Lower 9th Ward from 1995 until Hurricane Katrina, except for a year as an area superintendent under Superintendent Al Davis Jr.
Shortly after Katrina, she fought to open King as a charter. Friends of King now runs King and Joseph A. Craig Charter School in Treme. According to payroll records, the two schools had a total of 179 employees last school year.
Ethics law states that the head of a public agency – a chief executive or administrative officer — may not employ members of her immediate family. That includes children, spouses of children, siblings and siblings’ spouses. Although charter schools are generally exempted from laws governing traditional public schools, they have to comply with ethics laws.
Roché-Hicks did not respond to repeated interview requests by phone, email, and by hand-delivered note. Tracie Washington, the lawyer for Friends of King, did not respond to phone calls and emails. The Lens also attempted to reach Hilda Young, the Friends of King board president, and its vice president, Eartha Johnson, by phone and email. Likewise, none of Roché-Hicks’ relatives who work for her responded to requests for comment.
The two relatives whose employment appears to violate that law are:
Iris Roché Ponson, Roché-Hicks’ sister, was scheduled to earn $14,000 last school year as an attendance clerk and hall monitor at King, according to system payroll records. Ponson is listed as Hicks’ sister in two obituaries published in The Times-Picayune in 2010 and 2013.
Darrin Cook Sr., Roché-Hicks’ son-in-law, is the district’s director of maintenance, for which he was scheduled to be paid $50,000 last school year. Roché-Hicks daughter, Monique Cook, married Darrin Cook Sr. July 9, 1994.
Roché-Hicks may be under the impression that the ethics law creates an exception for immediate family members if they have worked in a similar capacity for another school board within the same parish. However, that exception applies only to immediate family of a school board member, not a superintendent, which is what Hicks is considered for the purposes of ethics laws.
She filed an ethics disclosure form in 2012 regarding Cook Sr., saying he has worked for Friends of King since Sept. 18, 2006. Only one form turned up in a records search for for Cook Sr., although state law requires Roché-Hicks to file a new form each year he is employed.
Roché-Hicks checked the “other” box to explain why his employment follows state law. She wrote that Cook Sr. worked for the Orleans Parish School Board as “a skilled worker” before coming to Friends of King.
However, her daughter’s employment does comply with the law.
Monique Hicks-Cook is a teacher at Craig charter. She was hired at an annual rate of $52,813 in the middle of last school year. Hicks-Cook’s marriage certificate lists Doris Roché-Hicks as her mother. She’s certified to teach in Louisiana, which is a requirement to be exempted from the nepotism law.
As required by law, Roché-Hicks filed a form with the Louisiana Board of Ethics to disclose that her daughter works for Friends of King. According to the form, her daughter was hired as a special education teacher on Jan. 7.
Hicks-Cook and Cook Sr. did not return phone calls and Facebook messages this week. Attempts to reach Ponson also were unsuccessful.
A search of the ethics board’s disclosures didn’t turn up any forms for Ponson, even though Roché-Hicks is required to disclose the relationship between her and Ponson and cite an applicable exemption to state ethics laws.
Louisiana Board of Ethics administrator Kathleen Allen said Tuesday that someone would have to file a written complaint in order for ethics board staff to investigate the employment of Hicks’ sister and son-in-law. If the staff found that the complaint had merit, the Ethics Board could file charges. Roché-Hicks would have to present her case in a hearing with the Division of Administrative Law’s Ethics Adjudicatory Board.
If that board concluded that Roché-Hicks violated the law, she could be censured and fined up to $10,000. Any employees found to be in violation of the law could be removed from their posts, suspended or demoted. They could also face fines of up to $10,000.
Three more of Roché-Hicks’ relatives also work for the district, although their employment doesn’t appear to violate state laws:
Darrin Cook Jr., the adult son of Cook Sr. and Hicks-Cook, and Roché-Hicks’ grandson, is the district’s webmaster and information technology consultant. His pay rate was set at $49,000 last school year. Cook Jr.’s LinkedIn page says he’s worked there since January 2007.
Cook Jr. has posted photos on Instagram of him with Hicks-Cook and Roché-Hicks, identifying them as “my mom” and “my grandma.” Hicks-Cook is identified as Darrin Jr.’s mother in a 2011 CNN profile on him losing 175 pounds.
Lawrence Cook III, who identifies himself on Facebook as Darrin Cook Sr.’s brother, was scheduled to earn $27,040 last school year as a custodian at Craig. Lawrence is listed as Darrin’s brother in a 2011 obituary published in The Times-Picayune. On Facebook, Lawrence Cook thanked Cook Sr. and Hicks-Cook for “giving me a job.”
Cook Sr. is listed on payroll records as District Head Custodian. His brother is a custodian. No school officials responded to questions asking whether Cook Sr. is the direct supervisor of his brother. State law says no public servant is supposed to participate in a transaction that could benefit an immediate family member.
Fallon Roché, who identifies herself on Facebook as Hicks-Cook’s cousin, was on the payroll for $19,600 last school year as a substitute teacher at Craig. Her mother, Evelyn Roché, is Doris Roché-Hicks’ niece, according to a 2010 obituary and a 2000 Times-Picayune article.
It’s not clear how long Cook III and Roché have worked for the district.
Situation isn’t unique
Other New Orleans school leaders have come under fire for hiring close relatives. The ethics board filed charges in November against the head of Robert Russa Moton Charter School, Paulette Bruno, for hiring two daughters-in-law. That case is pending, with a phone conference with Bruno scheduled for Aug. 27, Allen said.
In that case, one of her daughters-in-law, Suzanne Encalarde, was a certified teacher, but Bruno signed off on forms that promoted Encalarde and told the Moton board that Encalarde should get a salary increase. To comply with the law, school leaders employing family should recuse themselves from transactions and discussion of their work.
That rule was noted in a 2010 advisory opinion issued by the Ethics Board to Lusher Charter School CEO Kathy Riedlinger. She had asked for an opinion as to whether her daughter, Rebecca Hebert, could teach at Lusher. She was told that Hebert fell under the rules governing superintendents, and that as long as Riedlinger stayed out of business related to her daughter’s employment, both would be in the clear.
In 2012, a co-principal at Miller-McCoy Academy for Mathematics and Business – either Tiffany Hardrick or Keith Sanders – hired two siblings, auditors said.
The Board of Ethics hasn’t filed charges against anyone at Miller-McCoy, Allen said. But she wouldn’t say whether the board was still investigating the matter.
The school also awarded a contract to Hardrick’s brother’s company, The Times-Picayune reported. That could run afoul of the law that bans public officials from participating in transactions involving their family members and the public agency.
Such controversies occurred under the pre-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools system, too. In 2000, a G.W. Carver High School janitor, Alphonse Davis Sr., took home $70,000 in salary and overtime shortly after his son Al Davis, Jr., became district superintendent.