As part of a continuing spat, Milestone Academy charter school is accusing the Louisiana Department of Education of overstepping its authority, breaching its own policies and possibly violating the state open-meetings law.
The school’s attorney Mike Higgins sent a letter demanding the department “cease and desist” a comprehensive review of the school’s governance for a multitude of reasons.
Higgins’ letter appears to have worked.
At today’s committee meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, members unanimously put off the matter until October, despite the July 31 due date for the report. The delay was recommended by the department, which is led by Superintendent John White, who downplayed the significance of his request.
“Members, it’s just a matter of timing. The audit is not yet finished,” he said at the meeting in Baton Rouge.
The 389-student D-rated school opened its doors in 2003 and was in New Orleans until 2013, when it moved to Jefferson Parish. Because it is chartered directly by BESE, it accepts students regardless of where they live, and it’s able to move across parish boundaries.
The purpose of the audit, according to a letter from the state to the school, is to review the roles and duties of the board, not to track or verify financial matters. The letter said the review would be done by an outside company and would examine “board membership, governance structures, and bylaws.”
The school made news in July when it was revealed the school’s interim CEO, D’Juan Hernandez, had racked up $13,000 in charges on a credit card he opened under false pretenses using the school’s name. Hernandez resigned, and according to a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune article, paid back the money.
Milestone board members said at the time that they felt pressured by state officials to hire Hernandez. A spokesman for the Education Department scoffed at the idea, saying it’s solely the board’s decision to hire a school leader.
The audit appears to be designed to determine who is responsible for Hernandez’s actions.
Higgins said the state-ordered audit of board governance is improper on its face because nothing in the law lets the state examine such things, aside from confirmation of basic information such as residency.
“As with all charter contract holders, Innovators in Milestones is a stand-alone non-profit corporation, which, among its activities, operates a public charter school,” he said in his letter. “Decisions regarding the membership, structure, and bylaws of the non-profit entity lie solely with the entity itself, and not with the charter authorizer.”
He also wrote that the way the board went about discussing Milestone was underhanded and unfair. Nothing on the state school board’s committee agendas suggested the school would be the subject of debate or a vote. But an amended report handed out during the committee meeting named Milestone and requested board action.
He said that initial omission could violate the state’s open-meetings law and was unfair to school officials, who didn’t attend the meeting and couldn’t present their side.
The move to order the audit was tacked on to another motion before the board. Higgins said White persuaded the board to seek the audit in part by misrepresenting the problems with Hernandez.
For instance, Higgins wrote that White told the board that Hernandez had used “school funds improperly.” But Higgins points out that the misdeeds were done with a credit card, and the school never made a payment toward the credit-card debt.
“At no point did any funds leave Milestone’s control,” the letter states.
The audit is being done under contract by Transcendent Legal. That company is run by Jade Brown-Russell, who sits on Bricolage Academy charter school’s board, and Michelle Craig, formerly of Adams and Reese LLP, a law firm that represents several New Orleans charter schools.
The report — if one is completed — is set to be discussed at an Oct. 13 committee meeting of the state school board.