ReNEW Schools’ top administrators and current CEO knew about unethical and possibly illegal special-education practices at one of their charter schools months before alerting the state Department of Education, newly released documents show.

Current CEO Colleen Mackay received a four-page laundry list of misdeeds and questionable actions on Jan. 31, 2015, when she served as the five-school network’s chief of staff, according to emails obtained by The Lens. They also show then-CEO Gary Robichaux knew of the situation at SciTech Academy at least by March, when he received a similar email.

The network’s contract with the state-run Recovery School District requires it to immediately notify the RSD if it suspects such problems. The state didn’t find out until the school year was over.

ReNEW continued to employ the campus’ head of school and its principal through school’s end in late May.

Robichaux stepped down in December as the state was finishing its months-long investigation. He moved into an advocacy role with the network and continues to receive the same salary as the CEO, $154,000. Last year state records show Robichaux and Mackay were set to earn $140,675.

The January email to Mackay was damning.

“I am attaching a pdf of a document that gives the account of the things that little by little pushed me to come forward over the course of this year,” then-special education coordinator Kate Geiss wrote in an email she sent on a Saturday afternoon.

Bullet-by-bullet, she laid out SciTech’s co-leaders’ nefarious orders:

Head of School Tim Hearin and Principal Alex Perez told teachers to avoid spending time on kids who wouldn’t pass the state tests, she wrote. They gave staff a “magic number” of students to label with severe special education needs so additional dollars meant for their needs could fix a $300,000 budget deficit.

They also talked about manipulating paperwork to change the dates when immigrants with limited English arrived in the country so they wouldn’t have to take state tests. Another idea: moving students into different grade levels mid-year because they feared they wouldn’t pass state exams in their current grade.

As she closed her email, Geiss told Mackay she didn’t know if she could return to work.

In a brief statement emailed to The Lens this week, Geiss explained her reasons for blowing the whistle.

“I love the kids, teachers, and families of SciTech and I came forward to ensure that their combined educational journey ahead is an excellent one,” said Geiss, who did return to her job for the rest of that school year. She left ReNEW at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.

Special-ed problem was another school’s downfall

All of this happened just months after a widely publicized special-education problem at another New Orleans charter school, Lagniappe Academies.

Lagniappe and SciTech were both up for charter renewals in December of 2014. The state deferred Lagniappe’s renewal after a fall investigation into special-education services and then declined to renew its charter in March of 2015 after the results of an in-depth investigation were known, effectively closing the school.

SciTech’s charter was renewed for six years. In hindsight, its failure to provide what the government calls a “free and appropriate education” to special-education students, required by law, is strikingly similar.

In Geiss’ subsequent warning emails to Robichaux and Mackay, it was clear that Lagniappe’s investigation and charter non-renewal was not far from the minds of SciTech staff.

“It was a relief when Lagniappe article came out because I thought it could throw light on many of those same issues happening at our school,” Geiss wrote May 22. “I don’t like the idea of my teachers or students looking for new schools.”

On January 29, 2016, Mackay was the new CEO of the network when it received a Lagniappe-like investigative report and warning from the Department of Education for special-education and state-testing violations.

Mackay co-authored a letter with board President Brian Weimer in response to the state’s report. In it, they say ReNEW immediately took action when they discovered issues at SciTech “in the spring of 2015.”

The network also issued another statement that day: “The moment we discovered the issues at SciTech Academy — which have been outlined in this report — we took immediate and decisive action.”

That timeline doesn’t fit with the email received a year earlier.

A responsibility to report

The ReNEW network is chartered by the Recovery School District, which is ultimately responsible for ReNEW’s academic, operational and financial performance. The nonprofit ReNEW Schools board of directors holds the charters, sets policy, and oversees a CEO, who is responsible for day-to-day operation of the schools.

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said the district’s investigation, and ReNEW’s subsequently state-prescribed corrective action plan, showed the RSD’s accountability system is working. The investigation began in June after the principals resigned, after The Lens reported on possible special-education and testing violations and after ReNEW sent a letter to the department.

In the department’s January 2016 report, state officials say they learned of concerns at ReNEW in late May and received a letter from the board chairman June 3.

The Lens asked Dobard and his chief of staff, Laura Hawkins, what administrators should do in such a situation and whether ReNEW administrators behaved appropriately after receiving Geiss’s January and March emails.

“The RSD and LDOE expect charter school CEOs and administrators to act responsibly and ethically when they receive information about potential violations of law or policy,” Hawkins said. “This includes conducting any further inquiry as needed or turning the matter over to LDE or authorities as appropriate.”

ReNEW’s charter contract suggests the state should have been notified earlier.

Under a section titled “notification requirements,” it reads:

“The Charter Operator shall immediately notify the RSD of any conditions that may cause it to vary from the terms of this Agreement, including the approved charter, or from state law or BESE requirements.”

Purposefully classifying students at a higher-than-necessary special-ed tier to reap financial benefits without supplying the related help could be investigated as fraud.

Asked if ReNEW responded appropriately, Hawkins avoided answering directly in an emailed statement, focusing instead on what the charter network must do in the future.

“The Department has sanctioned ReNew schools through a set of comprehensive corrective actions.  These corrective actions are intended to ensure ReNew appropriately responds to each of the violations outlined in the Department’s report.  Failure to meet these corrective actions could lead to further sanctions for the organization.”

Robichaux takes the blame for the slow response to Geiss’ concerns.

“As CEO at the time, I take complete responsibility for the organization not responding more quickly and decisively to the issues identified in the report,” Robichaux said in a statement issued by ReNEW Monday.

State chose to keep names private

Nearly every name in the department’s 80-page report was redacted. That left the public to wonder just who committed the misdeeds alleged in emails, who had alerted whom to the wrongdoing and if they were still ReNEW employees.

Leadership from ReNEW and the Recovery School District largely blamed Hearin and Perez and highlighted the fact that the pair were gone. The two left abruptly in May amid questions of internal testing procedures.

“There has also been a culture of fear and loyalty that you brought up that discourages people from speaking up.”— SciTech whistleblower Kate Geiss

The department is trying to prevent “former SciTech leadership from obtaining employment in Louisiana public schools.” They want to use a policy that allows suspension and revocation of a Louisiana teaching or educational leadership certificate of someone who facilitated cheating.

However, if Hearin and Perez are the unnamed targets, this might not work. The policy appears to only apply to employees who were dismissed. Hearin and Perez resigned.

In early June, The Lens asked Robichaux about special-education concerns at the school.

“Tim did push the limits with special ed stuff too; nothing was illegal or out of compliance,” Robichaux said then, hinting that the network may have moved to fire Hearin if he hadn’t resigned.

ReNEW’s statement when the investigation was released said: “As you know, this was an isolated incident at one school involving two administrators acting on their own and not in accordance with ReNEW’s values.”

The state’s report also placed fault on network leadership, but didn’t name names:

“These violations are a result of the willful neglect of a small number of individuals and a lack of strong internal monitoring systems across a large organization.”

The state also said documents used to support the special-education findings “suggest that ReNEW’s leadership was aware of many of violations described in this report during the 2014-15 school year.”

But they chose to redact the names in their report.

The report never named Robichaux or Mackay, leaving the public to assume alarming emails describing the wrongdoing had been sent to the now-departed principals. Otherwise, why didn’t the network learn until spring and the department learn until June?

Redacting the name “Alex” is roughly the same size as a redacted “Gary.” But implicating a principal who had resigned and a network-level CEO who remains in leadership are much different.

By contrast, in the department’s nearly 200-page report on findings at Lagniappe, they did not redact the names of school administrators. They did, however, protect the names of school employees who provided affidavits testifying to the leaders’ activity.

Under the state’s Public Records Law, The Lens requested an unredacted copy of the state’s investigation. The department provided the clean document last week.

A systemic breakdown

Asked recently about what she did when she received the first email, Mackay said she needed to look at it again. She subsequently declined to be interviewed for this story. The network released a statement on her behalf that did not address the timeline or her actions in light of receiving emails.

About six weeks after Geiss first emailed Mackay, Geiss met with Robichaux and discussed concerns. Their thoughts are reflected in a short series of emails from March 10 and 11, 2015.

“There has also been a culture of fear and loyalty that you brought up that discourages people from speaking up,” Geiss wrote. “I think that if there are STA [SciTech Academy] teachers coming to me worried that we could be the next story, we ought to be as well.”

Robichaux responded that he would address the issues after state testing.

Two months later as the school year was ending, on May 22, Geiss sent Mackay more information by email with the hope that action would be taken.

“I always made it clear that I had it, which makes me believe Gary didn’t actually want it because he’d have to use it,” she wrote, referring to backup documentation and other evidence of wrongdoing.

It’s unclear if Mackay sent the four pages of concerns she received in January 2015 to Robichaux. She wouldn’t answer questions about it.

In further evidence of systematic failure at the network, emails obtained by The Lens also reveal SciTech’s current principal, Disha Jain, failed to report possible testing issues to the state.

Jain, who took over as principal after Hearin and Perez resigned, emailed the two leaders during last spring’s testing because she  “…saw some things that could be red flags if state monitors walked into the building.”

At the time she was a network-wide leadership coach at ReNEW.

She cautioned the two against having students who had tested in the same room as students who had not. Her observation was not known to the state until a June 3 letter submitted by District Test Coordinator Sumeet Goil.

The state forwarded its investigation to the state Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Education. A spokesman for the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said the office has not opened an investigation into SciTech.

The network has set up a hotline that allows for anonymous complaints and has a new whistleblower policy. The hotline’s website page specific to ReNEW says complaints would to go “authorized recipients.” ReNEW spokesman Scott Satchfield said that’s Michael Galdi, the network’s chief of staff.

That’s the same position Mackay held when she received Geiss’s January 2015 email.

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...