Collegiate Academies didn’t track whether it had conducted background checks for its employees for three academic years, according to its annual audits and a new report by the state Department of Education.

In September 2015, auditors found that an employee did not have a “complete background check on file,” Collegiate spokeswoman Zoey Reed wrote in an email. She called that case “a fluke.”

Reed said the charter group had sought a background check for the employee but did not receive a report. Collegiate later conducted the check for the employee, who no longer works there.

But the year before, auditors found another personnel file without a background check. They warned the charter group that it didn’t have an effective system for tracking whether such checks had been conducted for all employees.

All current employees have had background checks, Reed said. Collegiate runs three public schools in New Orleans.

Louisiana law requires schools to complete background checks for all employees. Certain contractors, such as bus companies, also must check the background of anyone who interacts with children.

Anyone convicted of crimes listed in the Louisiana Child Protection Act is not allowed to work in a school.

Audits flagged lack of oversight

Collegiate caught the attention of Dudley Garidel Jr., the Department of Education’s internal auditor, because it is a repeat offender.

Garidel’s report, titled “Significant Audit Findings,” tallies repeat problems found in school districts and charter schools across Louisiana. Collegiate is the only charter school to appear in the report.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. They are required to meet annual academic and financial benchmarks, including submitting yearly audits. In exchange, they can choose their own curriculum, hire and fire employees, set their own calendar and more.

In 2014, Collegiate’s auditors wrote the network’s operation “does not allow management or staff to identify if background checks have been completed or reviewed for adequacy.”

That meant “teachers or other employees with authority over children may not be eligible to retain their position.”

They wrote the same thing in 2015.

And again in 2016.

“It’s not acceptable that this issue took multiple audits to correct,” Reed wrote in an email. “We have made changes to ensure every employee has a background check on file.”

Reed said Collegiate “acted urgently” when the auditor for the 2015 report notified administrators about the missing background check.

She didn’t know if the employee who was missing a background check that year had committed a crime that would have prevented employment, and she said she could not identify the person because it was a personnel matter.

“It’s not acceptable that this issue took multiple audits to correct. We have made changes to ensure every employee has a background check on file.”—Zoey Reed, Collegiate Academies

Collegiate’s school leaders have set up process to track background checks, “and our 2016-17 audit will indicate the issues were resolved,” Reed wrote.

That’s what auditors recommended in their reports.

Reed said the network now has a partnership with the Louisiana Sheriffs Association Civil Inquiry Network. It usually returns results of background checks in two days and allows the charter network to track which ones have been completed.

Collegiate’s director of finance will use a checklist to document that he has ensured new employees have passed the background check before they’re hired, according to the education department’s report.

In 2016, Collegiate hired a woman who had been convicted in a school board bribery scheme, along with her mother, a former Orleans Parish school board member.

The charter group’s employment application did not inquire about criminal history, but Reed said they knew about Stacy Martin’s 2008 conviction.

Laura Hawkins, the deputy chief of staff for the Recovery School District, said the district was aware of the issues at Collegiate. The district “is confident that the issue identified by the auditor was anomalous and not indicative of any systemic problems,” she wrote.

The charter group is required to send its an audit for last school year to the state by the end of December.

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...