Shortly after closing last school year with a near-$850,000 deficit at its newest school, charter management organization Friends of King Schools paid at least $69,000 to host an organization-wide retreat at a Biloxi casino.

The four-day retreat cost about the same as the savings from the charter organization’s decision to cut salaries 2 percent at cash-strapped Joseph A. Craig Charter School. CEO Doris Roché-Hicks informed the staff of the pay cut about a week after the trip.

The school also laid off several Craig staffers over the summer, reducing its salary costs for the current school year by 27 percent over last year’s, according to the school’s 2013-14 budget.

$69,372.96Paid by Friends of King for retreat at the Beau Rivage$70,000Approximate savings from pay cut at Joseph A. Craig Charter School

But from Aug. 4 to 8, Friends of King invited all of its approximately 180 employees, from hall monitors to principals, to the Beau Rivage for a retreat focused on staff development.

The charter organization booked 101 rooms at a rate of $109 a night, according to an invoice from the hotel. Most attendees stayed three nights; some stayed four. They ate ribeye steak, garlic-roasted shrimp and bread pudding with warm vanilla sauce. And they attended training sessions with titles such as “The State of Education: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Banquet dinners cost between $38 and $43 per person. Audio-visual equipment carried a stiff price tag, too; the hotel billed Friends of King $250 to use a projector and $25 for a power strip.

Roché-Hicks and board attorney Tracie Washington didn’t respond The Lens’ questions about the retreat, including whether it was mandatory for all employees. Washington said she would mail a copy of the agenda, but The Lens has not received it. (Update, Nov. 22: The Lens has received the agenda.)

Board members Gail Armant, Eartha Johnson, Hilda Young, George Rabb, Kenya Rounds, Sandra Monroe, Joe Long, and Washington all attended, according to the hotel’s list of guests. At least one attendee was not affiliated with the school – State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, who said the organization paid for his two-night stay and his meals in exchange for speaking at two sessions.

During their stay, Friends of King faculty and staff heard presentations about how to use data to drive classroom instruction, Common Core standards, student learning targets and school bullying, among other topics.

One night, they attended a reception with a DJ and a bar stocked with beer, wine and high-end liquor — although employees appear to have paid for alcohol themselves. Hotel records indicate that the DJ was contracted by Friends of King; details of that arrangement were not included in the documents provided by Friends of King in response to a public-records request.

Some employees ran up about $420 in incidental charges, including room service and a fee for smoking in a room. Friends of King records state that employees paid $1,507.42 towards their own lodging; it’s not clear from the documents whether that includes the extra charges.

But most of the costs, according to public records, were paid from the general funds of Craig and Dr. King Charter School, as well as their Title I and Title II funding, which are federal grants intended to help schools raise achievement among at-risk students and increase educator quality. Federal Title I and II guidance permits the use of such funds for professional development.

The hotel billed the organization a total of $74,468.14, including:

  • About $41,000 for 101 rooms
  • About $29,800 for catered meals and buffets
  • About $3,700 for audio/visual equipment

However, the two checks provided to The Lens total just $69,372.96. Friends of King officials did not respond to The Lens’ inquiry about the discrepancy.

Bishop said he spoke during two sessions, one about board governance and the other, which he described as a “fantastic” question-and-answer session, aimed at the entire organization.

“This was one of the better ones [workshops] that I had been to,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for a charter’s nonprofit board to hold a retreat – The Lens annually covers board retreats of the more than 40 charter boards in New Orleans, held at various locations around the city. The Orleans Parish School Board holds a board retreat once every four years when new board members are elected. It’s typically held out-of-town, such as the board’s April Houston trip.

Fox 8 News: ‘N.O. charter school group spends almost $70K on staff retreat at casino

However, leaders of three charter-school organizations said they’ve never paid for any organization-wide professional development retreats out of state. Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools executive director Caroline Roemer Shirley said she wasn’t sure how common retreats like this are.

“Once, we had Common Core training at a synagogue in Metairie that we got for a very low cost,” Choice Foundation Executive Director Mickey Landry said in an email.

Friends of King officials have said that their $850,000 deficit for the 2012-13 school year was due to startup costs and the Recovery School District’s failure to classify an influx of special-ed students the charter inherited when it took over Craig. The organization’s board voted at a recent meeting to move $705,000 from Dr. King Charter School to help Craig cover its deficit – a transfer that state education officials say they are monitoring to ensure it’s done properly.

In an Aug. 16 email, Roché-Hicks announced to Craig staff that the organization would cut their pay by 2 percent. She later said that the cut could be made up by participating in staff development activities. It’s unclear whether she was referring to the retreat at the casino.

This story was updated after publication to note that the Lens received the retreat agenda on Nov. 21, the day after this story was published.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...