Following a yearlong dispute, ReNEW Schools has paid the Recovery School District about $196,000 in past-due bills for food services at three schools during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. That’s less than half of what the RSD had sought, and much closer to what ReNEW said at one point that it was willing to pay.

For months, the two sides went back and forth over the amount owed before they entered into mediation. According to an October 2012 bill, the RSD said ReNEW owed $557,763 for overdue food bills for the prior two school years. ReNEW put the figure between $230,000 and $240,000, some of which it paid in installments while they negotiated.

At the time, ReNEW contracted with the RSD for food services; the RSD in turn handed the work off to Aramark. Part of the problem, according to emails between the RSD and ReNEW employees, was that ReNEW couldn’t provide proper documentation to prove that most of its students were eligible for federally subsidized meals.

Without that documentation, the RSD wasn’t able to request reimbursement from the federal government. The reimbursement deadlines passed, so the RSD was accountable to Aramark for the full price of those meals. The district paid those bills and sought the money from ReNEW.

“We already paid those bills for them,” DeLano Ford, the deputy superintendent of services and operations at RSD, told The Lens earlier this year. “Now we’re just trying to get some of that money back.”

The difference was substantial. Aramark charged $2.80 for each subsidized lunch; the federal government would have paid all but 10 cents, which would have come from ReNEW. Instead, the charter organization was billed for the full price of each meal.

ReNEW ended up paying $113,455.09 in installments, and in August agreed to a final payment of $82,160.80, according to RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed. The president of ReNEW Schools, Kevin Guitterrez, confirmed those figures.

RSD, ReNEW mum on details of agreement

Both sides emphasized that they reached an “amicable” settlement.

But that’s pretty much all that the RSD and ReNEW will say. Though they disclosed the final settlement amount, for weeks they refused to say how much ReNEW had paid RSD in full for food services during the period.

Reed provided the total figure last week, a few weeks after The Lens submitted a public-records request. However, neither ReNEW nor the RSD have provided the records, including records of the payments and the agreement itself.

Guitterrez has argued that some of those documents are exempt from public disclosure because they fall under a form of attorney-client privilege.

The amount owed changed as the two sides worked out the issue. In October 2012, the RSD billed the charter organization $557,763. In early 2013, it was $496,812, according to RSD documents.

Neither side has explained how they arrived at the final figure. When asked about the difference between the previous bills and final amount, Guitterrez said he didn’t want to get into specifics.

Reed also said the final settlement and the past invoices shouldn’t be compared. In early October, she wrote:

The story concerns the settlement and should not confuse the reader with previous amounts. So, our statement still is the amicable settlement reached through mediation is the $84K. This resolves all outstanding disputes and the matter is closed.

Guitterez said no figures should’ve been discussed publicly before the issue had been settled.

“I think this was obviously a scenario that was not complete when we were still in mediation,” he said. “We hadn’t sat down and gone through what was thoroughly accurate and reasonable.”

History of communications issues

At the heart of the disagreement, records show, were a series of communications and record-keeping difficulties on both sides. They hint at the challenges the Recovery School District faces in trying to manage the operations of charter schools, which have some autonomy but are still overseen by the publicly funded district.

An email from RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard alludes to problems with RSD’s billing for the 2010-11 school year. Another issue, according to documents and interviews, was that during the 2011-12 school year, ReNEW moved to a new student information system. That system stores students’ names, grades, addresses, birth dates and enrollment dates — files that have to be kept up to date as students move or withdraw from school.

For months, according to the emails, ReNEW couldn’t provide the student information files to RSD in the proper format.

Other documents and correspondence between officials at RSD and ReNEW show months of back-and-forth between the organizations about precisely what information had to be provided, in what format, to the district.

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...