New Beginnings Schools Foundation’s finance committee met Wednesday with its not-quite-hired financial consultant to discuss how to save money.

Board President Leslie Bouie signed a $62,240 contract with Square Button consulting Tuesday, to help the four-school network develop its annual budget and analyze budgeting practices. The firm is owned by Allen Square, who formerly served as the city’s chief information officer.

The contract comes as a bit of a surprise. The board considered several request for proposals last month, but not financial services.

“The creation and adoption of the 2016-17 budget” that Square and his colleagues are tasked with would normally be completed by network Chief Financial Officer Karen Craig*. She was at the meeting and said the task was well underway and on track to meet its April deadline. It was as if Craig and her staff were pitching against Square.

Prior to the meeting, The Lens asked Bouie if the board had authorized her to sign such a contract. She said as board president, she inherently had that ability and that the board would ratify the contract at its next meeting.

The board’s next meeting isn’t until March 17, well into the “four-week sprint” Square described to the finance committee Wednesday night.

Finance committee members seemed confused about what would constitute a public meeting. Board President Leslie Bouie suggested having members call in via phone to avoid a meeting and having a quorum in the room.

Square works alongside Simone Green, and they both have experience with charter boards. She was the finance director at the now-shuttered Pride College Prep, where Square served as board president. The school closed in the summer of 2013 after receiving an F on its state report card two years in a row.

This contract between New Beginnings and Square Button comes just weeks after the firm also responded to the network’s request for proposals regarding a full organizational audit. It beat out four competitors but it’s unclear if the network has since negotiated a contract. Square’s proposal was expected to cost between $230,000 and $260,000.

Finance committee members made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that Square’s presence and budget-prep work had no relation to the organizational audit proposal.

Committee members Sheila Danzey and Bouie said Square and his consultants were needed to ensure the network was spending its money wisely.

At one point, Danzey said she knew nothing about the budgeting process. When committee member Austin Zaunbrecher pointed out that she’d overseen the approval of two previous budgets, she told him she’d overseen more than that. Danzey said later that she’d like to see budget-to-actual finance reports, and Craig said those were provided regularly to Danzey and other members.

“We all want to make sure we’re accountable for the public’s money,” Bouie said.

Square’s draft proposal showed co-consultant Andrea Zayas creating the 2016-17 budget for the network. Zayas has experience in education in multiple states and most recently served a brief stint in administration at the Algiers Charter School Association this past fall.

Square said he would need time with central office staff to gather information and that he’d submit a data request at the end of this week. He cautioned that the two sides may not always agree, but that everything would be communicated clearly.

“This is their thinking. This is our thinking,” Square said regarding working Craig and Brown. “Doesn’t mean one person is right or wrong.”

Square asked that the network establish a point of contact. Bouie volunteered.

Zaunbrecher asked that Square’s work include research regarding salaries and benefits offered at other local charters, and whether New Beginnings was a competitive employer.

Square told the committee he prefers to meet weekly during the four-week project.

In discussing those meetings, finance committee members seemed confused about what would constitute a public meeting. Bouie suggested having members call in via phone to avoid a meeting and having a quorum in the room.

Under state law, any meeting called to discuss public business that could include a quorum of a board or board’s committee must be open to the public. However, board members who join over the phone do not count toward a quorum nor can they vote.

Members said they would consult their attorney.

Both  Zaunbrecher and Travis Chase said they had not decided whether they would vote to ratify the contract at the March 17 full board meeting. Chase said the board needed to balance cost savings and efficiency.

Somewhat ironically, Square promised to do a full analysis of contracts held by the network.

The firm will offer advice on areas to save money. Craig lauded the network’s recent budget which she said redirected money from the central office to the schools.

“Where’s that savings going? That’s what I want to know,” Danzey said. “I’m not asking you for details now.”

“They should not be going to contractors as much as they should be going to the classroom.”

Craig’s response was curt.

“You’ve been given regular updates and you get financials every month,” she said.

*Correction: This story initially erroneously reported the Chief Financial Officer’s name. Her name is Karen Craig.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...