KIPP New Orleans Schools spent about $119,000 to send 185 employees to an annual summit in Las Vegas this summer, around the same time as Friends of King Schools put out about $70,000 for an organization-wide retreat at the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, Miss.

It also appears that the Friends of King retreat violated the state open-meetings law, which requires public notice if a quorum of a public body plans to meet to deal with business matters. Eight of the board’s nine members attended the four-day retreat; no notice was provided.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, questioned the charter schools’ decisions to spend so much on out-of-town training, especially when the state’s education funding has been stagnant in recent years.

“I applaud them around the professional development piece, but I will just say, couldn’t you do that right here in New Orleans?”—Caroline Roemer Shirley, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools

That’s particularly concerning for Friends of King, she said, considering that one of its two schools closed the 2012-13 year with a deficit of $1.1 million.

A week after the retreat, King CEO Doris Roché-Hicks announced a 2 percent pay cut for staff at that school, Joseph A. Craig Charter School. That cut saved about as much as the retreat cost.

“I applaud them around the professional development piece, but I will just say, couldn’t you do that right here in New Orleans?” Shirley said. “This is a time where a lot of schools are struggling to make ends meet. I think that we need to be extremely careful with what we are doing with those dollars.”

KIPP New Orleans schools are in better shape financially. All of its nine schools finished 2012-13 with money in the bank, some with several hundred thousand dollars.

$69,372.96Cost of Friends of King’s staff-wide retreat in Biloxi$119,175Cost to send local employees to KIPP summit in Las Vegas

The KIPP School Summit, held at in a different location each year, attracts more than 3,000 KIPP employees from around the country. This year, it was held at the Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas from July 29 to Aug 1.

Leaders at each KIPP New Orleans school decide at the beginning of the year if they want to budget for the trip, said Jonathan Bertsch, director of advocacy for KIPP New Orleans.

He said 185 of the nearly 440 KIPP employees in New Orleans went to Las Vegas. Most were teachers and staff at KIPP’s middle and high schools, although some staff from the New Orleans central office also attended, Bertsch said.

Their rooms cost $139 a night. The Lens has a pending records request for expenses related to the KIPP School Summit.

Federal government pays for professional development

Bertsch said the trip and KIPP’s other professional development is key to the organization’s strategy. “We think it’s really important for teachers to connect with experts from around the country,” he said.

KIPP New Orleans expects the federal government’s Title II program to reimburse the schools for most of the trip’s $119,175 cost. Title II funds must be used to improve teacher quality, which includes professional development.

Friends of King Schools paid for its retreat out of the schools’ general funds, Title II money and Title I money, which is intended to improve education for disadvantaged students.

“You take out the word ‘casino’ and the notion of having a retreat, with all the staff engaged all the way up, with custodians and [everyone], it sounds like a real creative thing.”—Kenneth Ducote, former Orleans schools administrator

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that those federal grants can be used for professional development, although she said such expenditures must be “reasonable and necessary” and consistent with cost principles outlined in federal funding laws.

The Louisiana Department of Education’s Office of Federal Programs handles federal reimbursements to schools. The state generally gives school districts the autonomy to determine how they spend Title I and Title II money, spokesman Barry Landry said in an email.

Out-of-town trips common before Katrina

A former Orleans Parish School Board administrator said that simply taking an out-of-town retreat isn’t enough to raise his eyebrows.

Friends of King may have chosen the Beau Rivage, said Kenneth Ducote, now a charter-school consultant, because it had better meeting space or because it was cheaper than a hotel in New Orleans.

“You take out the word ‘casino’ and the notion of having a retreat, with all the staff engaged all the way up, with custodians and [everyone], it sounds like a real creative thing,” he said.

Similar out-of-town retreats were common in the parish school system before Hurricane Katrina, Ducote said, though they generally were limited to central-office staff and the top administrators at each school.

In the late 1970s, Ducote said, annual management retreats took place in Baton Rouge. But schools’ tight budgets and the lower lodging rates of the casinos eventually sparked a move to places like Biloxi.

The Principals Association of New Orleans Public Schools, a group of principals that eventually became the local chapter of the American Federation of School Administrators, generally coordinated such events, he said. Roché-Hicks is a former president of the principals association.

However, officials with five other charter organizations in New Orleans said they’ve never had staff-wide, out-of town retreats such as this one. Neither has Harlem-based Democracy Prep, a high-performing network of schools that plans to expand to Louisiana in the coming years.

Can such training be done locally?

Shirley said she hoped that KIPP and Friends of King evaluated their options to see if they could “do something of equal level of professional development locally.” That would depend in part on whether the schools could get the same caliber of speakers for a local event.

One of the 2013 KIPP School Summit speakers, high school teacher and San Francisco State University professor Jeff Duncan-Andrade, was the keynote speaker at the Louisiana charter school association’s daylong conference in Baton Rouge in September.

Other summit speakers included Sal Khan of the educational website Khan Academy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.

The summit was titled “Rising to the Challenge.” Topics of the 270 sessions included publicizing KIPP’s mission, integrating Common Core principles into teaching, and using blended learning techniques in classes.

The theme of the Friends of King Schools retreat was “Reflect! Recharge! Renew! Common Core and Whole Child Education.”

Most of the training sessions were led by Friends of King employees, including:

  • “Using Data to Focus Instructional Improvements,” led by Dr. King Charter School High School Principal Lindsey Moore

  • “The State of Education: Where Do We Go From Here,” a panel discussion with Moore and eight other employees

  • “Hand in Hand: Common Core and Whole Child Education,” led by three district employees

  • “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: Stopping the Cycle of Violence,” led by two district employees

  • “Support Staff Basic Training,” a session led by Artis Hicks, Roché-Hicks’ husband and a community director and manager at Dillard University

Other speakers included Ann Duplessis, senior vice president of Liberty Bank and newly instated president of the Louisiana Federation for Children, and Larry Alexander, a deputy network leader with the Louisiana Department of Education.

In addition to the $41,000 spend on the hotel rooms, the charter organization spent about $30,000 on meals, including catered meals of ribeye steak for board members and school leaders and a barbecue for the entire staff.

Friends of King didn’t provide public-meetings notice for retreat

State public-meetings law requires 24-hour public notice before a meeting, which includes gatherings of a quorum of the members to receive information related to matters under its supervision.

Eight of the nine board members for Friends of King attended the retreat, according to records provided by the charter organization. The agenda describes a Sunday workshop specifically for the board.

But the organization doesn’t appear to have posted notice on the school’s website, and the retreat isn’t included in the list of meetings for the year. Despite repeated requests for such notices, The Lens didn’t receive anything. State law requires members of the media to be informed if they request it.

None of the KIPP New Orleans board members attended the summit in Las Vegas.

Shirley said she’s disappointed that Friends of King broke the law, especially considering that its attorney, Tracie Washington, has advocated adherence to public meetings laws in the past.

“Someone who is from the legal community, someone who has thought herself to be a leader of the people, is not really practicing that in respect to her clients,” Shirley said.

In January, state stiffened enforcement of rules for governance and performance at charter schools. That came almost two years after the state’s legislative auditor first reprimanded the Recovery School District for being too lax in school oversight.

Since these stricter rules for schools have been in effect, New Beginnings Network is the only organization to be cited for failing to follow open meetings law.

Repeated violations of the law can lead to more state intervention, up to and including charter contract revocation.

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...