Schools
 

As charter employee faces ethics charges, school drags feet on records requests

A Central City charter school has failed to turn over records requested by The Lens as one of its administrators is under scrutiny for being paid on the side and an audit raised questions about financial management.

In early January, The Lens asked for any contracts Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy held with Brent Washington Sr., its chief financial officer. The state Board of Ethics has formally accused him of violating laws that prohibit public employees from doing work on the side for their employers.

A week later, The Lens asked for six months of credit card statements and the forms employees are supposed to fill out when they use the card. In a spot-check of charges for one month, the school could not provide receipts for two of three transactions, according to an audit released in December. Auditors found an additional five charges lacking receipts.

State law requires government agencies — which includes charter schools — to provide public records immediately unless they are being used. In that case, the agency is supposed to schedule a time within three days to allow the record to be viewed.

Kenya Rounds, the school’s attorney, responded to The Lens the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, blaming the delay on the holiday and freezing weather that shut down the city later that week.

Last week, he said his office would send over records it had just received. That didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until we told him this week that we would report on the school’s failure to produce the records that we received anything. He sent one of the contracts with Washington and a financial report that didn’t appear to be related to our requests.

‘Nobody has any comments today’

That contract is a letter signed in 2014 that’s less than a page long. It shows that the school board president, the Rev. Charles Southall, agreed to pay Washington $75 an hour to prepare for the school’s audit.

The Lens has also requested the job description for the chief financial officer to see what duties fall under that position.

The Louisiana Department of Education told the Board of Ethics last summer the contract appeared to violate state ethics laws.

They say public employees can’t bid on or receive a contract with their agency, nor can they do work similar to their duties as an employee. That prohibition applies for two years after someone leaves public employment.

Washington was paid $54,000 over three years, according to ethics charges. That’s on top of his $86,000 annual salary, according to state records.

The school awarded another, $25,000 contract to Washington and consultant Rhonda Clark to expand the school, according to meeting minutes.

It’s unclear what exactly they were paid to do; Harney has not provided a copy of that contract.

The second contract is not mentioned in the ethics charges against Washington.

The school board met Monday night; Washington was there. Asked if he knew those contracts could violate the law, he didn’t answer and walked away.

We asked Southall the same question after the meeting. “Nobody has any comments today,” Rounds interjected.

Asked when we would see the records, Rounds first said we would have to submit a request, then said some of the records had been posted to the website. The board’s meeting minutes are there, as required by law, but we couldn’t find any others.

In December, the Orleans Parish school district cited Harney for failing to post legally required information on its website in seven of eight areas. Among them: not informing people whom to contact for public records and not posting agendas and meeting minutes.

Other financial questions

The school’s auditors noted eight issues in a letter to the nonprofit’s board of directors. They reviewed 25 checks and found 19 did not have evidence of proper authorization as required by the school’s policies.

In five cases, there was no evidence a purchase was for an appropriate school purpose, auditors found. In nine, the school couldn’t demonstrate that it had received what it paid for.

Auditors recommended the board get more involved with supervising finances because one person was responsible for handling and approving expenditures. That opens the door to fraud.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor oversees audits of organizations that receive state funding, including charter schools.

“There’s still a lot of things that need to be cleaned up, that need to be corrected,” said Brad Cryer, the agency’s director of local government. Based on responses from the school, which were noted in the auditor’s letter, it’s moving in that direction, he said.

According to minutes from a July meeting, board member Ashton Ryan Jr., the former CEO of the now defunct First NBC Bank, asked to have his name removed from financial documents. The minutes don’t explain what he was talking about.

We asked him about that. He responded, “It’s not in the minutes.” Told otherwise, he said, “If it’s in the minutes, someone typed them wrong.”

Employee at Southall’s church paid $18,000 as secretary for Harney’s board

Those minutes were prepared by board secretary Lisa Royal. At a December 2016 board meeting, she was awarded a contract for $18,000 a year to do that work.

Royal is administrative assistant at First Emanuel Baptist Church, where Southall is the pastor.

The Lens requested a copy of her contract on Jan. 29, but the school hasn’t responded.

Someone has to record the actions of charter school boards. Sometimes it’s a board member; other times a school employee or the school’s attorney will do it.

Harney’s board has met eight times in the year since it approved that contract, according to meeting minutes.

Royal’s minutes don’t say how long the meetings lasted. But at $18,000 a year, that works out to $2,250 per meeting.

It’s unclear if the board holds committee meetings, where Royal would also take minutes. There are no minutes for committee meetings on the school’s website; the school would be required to post them if there were.

Royal told The Lens her job is to take minutes and handle other board matters. “If there’s board direction and something has to be done, that’s what I do,” she said in a brief phone call earlier this week.

The Lens approached her at the end of the meeting to ask her how she is paid. Rounds stepped in.

“Tell her you have no comments,” he said.

“I have no comment,” Royal said.

Board accepts audit

Auditors delivered a brief overview of their look at the school’s finances at the meeting.

“It’s just a litany of those small-type items” that should be easy to correct, an employee of Bruno and Tervalon, the auditing firm, told the board.

Ryan asked school administrators to provide a monthly report on their progress in updating policies and dealing with matters identified in the audit.

“The Legislature really decided to get into the weeds, which is not the right way to do auditing,” he said.

The board approved a motion to accept the audit. “I really think we enjoy our relationship with the firm,” Ryan said.

The Bruno and Tervalon employee responded, “We enjoy our relationship, too.”

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.