Schools
 

Harney charter school is in trouble with the Orleans Parish school district for financial management

The Orleans Parish School Board has issued its most severe warning to Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy — again.

This time, the district says the publicly funded charter school isn’t meeting its obligations for financial management.

An audit released in December found unsupported credit card purchases, questioned the wisdom of having a one-person finance department, and raised a number of other concerns about how the school deals with money.

Meanwhile, the state Ethics Board has filed formal charges against Brent Washington Sr., Harney’s chief financial officer.

Washington has had an agreement with the school to do accounting work on the side. Public employees are barred from contracting with the agency that employs them.

“It is critically important that your organization address the concerns noted immediately,” wrote Dina Hasiotis, who oversees school performance for the district, in a Feb. 23 letter.

This is the second such warning issued to the Central City charter school this school year.

The school could face further penalties, including a shorter charter renewal term, if it doesn’t follow the district’s steps, Hasiotis wrote. Harney’s charter is up for renewal in 2019.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. To stay open, they must meet certain financial and academic goals.

Though Hasiotis didn’t threaten it, a warning like this can lead to a charter revocation hearing if the school does not fix the problem.

The issues she raised are some of the same ones cited in the school’s annual audit, described by The Lens in January.

Auditors reviewed 25 checks chosen at random from the school’s files. They found no evidence of proper approval for 19 of them. In five cases, there was no evidence the purchase was for an appropriate school purpose. In nine, the school couldn’t demonstrate that it had received what it had paid for.

They also said the one-person finance department was a concern; an accounting professor told The Lens that left the school vulnerable to fraud.

The school told auditors it had since hired someone to help with finances.

The district has ordered Harney’s administrators to attend training on school finances, submit an organizational chart and meet with district administration by today.

District spokeswoman Dominique Ellis would not say whether that meeting has occurred. She said an update would be provided at the board’s accountability committee meeting next week.

“OPSB does not comment on ongoing discussions with schools,” Ellis wrote in an email.

A Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman said Harney has submitted its two required quarterly financial reports this school year.

In October, the Orleans Parish school district asked for several documents from Harney, including some related to Washington, the school’s chief financial officer.

When the school did not respond, the district issued a level 1 warning. It later escalated that to a level 2 warning.

The district received the documents in January, according to its latest letter to the school.

But it it wants more information about Washington, including the status of his contract with the school, a description of what services he provided, and his invoices from 2014 to 2017.

Washington, who was king of Zulu this year, was paid $54,500 for accounting work from 2014 to 2016, according to the state ethics board. That was in addition to his annual salary, which was $75,000 in the 2016-17 school year, according to state records.

In December, the school received another level 1 warning for failing to post information to its website, including contact information for public records requests, school fees, homework help, and policies on seclusion and restraint. Other schools received similar warnings.

Harney’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

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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.