A world away from his Central City school, where 97 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, the head of a charter school board racked up $778 over six months at an upscale restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.

The Rev. Charles Southall III bought the meals with a credit card issued to Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy under his name. Monthly statements went not to the school, but to Southall’s church on Carondelet Street.

Southall spent $1,514 at restaurants in New Orleans and Baton Rouge in six months starting in July 2016. That’s $250 a month at establishments such as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Cheesecake Bistro by Copeland’s and Le Pavillon hotel — all funded by the school.

Asked about the meals, Southall said, “They were lunches that were related to preparing to get a new school leader in.”

But Eileen Williams had been in charge of Harney since at least 2013 and continued until June 2017. Southall did not respond to follow-up questions.

The small school’s financial practices have drawn scrutiny from the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board. Auditors criticized the school’s one-man finance department and said the board should provide more oversight.
Last fall, the state Board of Ethics filed an official complaint against the school’s chief financial officer, Brent Washington Sr. The school paid him $54,500 on the side to do accounting work, which the ethics board contends broke the law.

“This is a school that has continued to have financial issues,” said Caroline Roemer, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

There’s nothing in state law that prevents Southall from using a school credit card for meals, even expensive ones, as long as it’s related to his work on the charter school board.

We checked with three other charter groups, KIPP New Orleans, Crescent City Schools and Collegiate Academies. None gives its board members a school credit card.

Finances under watch

In an audit that examined the 2016-17 school year, auditors randomly checked purchases on one credit card statement. They said they couldn’t find receipts to back up two of the three purchases that month.

They also noted that Harney’s accounting handbook had no policy on how to handle credit cards.

In response, school officials sent an undated policy to the district in January. “The school credit card is utilized at the discretion of the Board President,” it said.

The new policy requires charges to be approved by the chief financial officer — the same administrator facing ethics charges.

Monthly statements show the card was issued by First NBC Bank and had a $20,000 credit limit.

“We discontinued doing credit cards in” — Southall paused. “When did the bank close? 2016. At the end of that, that was the end of it.”

First NBC Bank was declared insolvent in April 2017. Weeks earlier, Ashton Ryan Jr., the bank’s president CEO — and a Harney board member —  stepped down from the financial institution.

He remained on the charter board and later asked his name to be removed from financial documents.

Cards used for meals

Judging by how often it shows up on his credit card receipts, Southall apparently has a taste for Houston’s Cajun redfish with rock shrimp and lemon butter sauce. One of the house specialties at the St. Charles Avenue restaurant, it cost $26.

Other than a $40 monthly charge for accounting software and a couple of late fees, every purchase on the card was for a meal.

One meal appeared to include alcohol. A dinner at Louisiana Lagniappe Restaurant in Baton Rouge included a “Long Island” and two cosmopolitans.

Southall left a $40 tip on a $74.80 bill for breakfast at Le Pavillon Hotel on Poydras Street one morning.

The most expensive meal was a $267 lunch at Houston’s in November 2016 with five entrees, including the redfish with rock shrimp.

Someone scrawled several names on the receipt. One of them said “Royal.” Lisa Royal, an employee at Southall’s church, is the secretary for Harney’s board. Another said “Clarke.” The school contracted with Rhonda Clarke to act as a chief academic officer in 2016, according to a document provided to The Lens.

Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said state law allows charter board members to be reimbursed for expenses while conducting board business. “Board member use of a credit card for conducting school business would not be flagged as a problem,” she wrote in an email.

That’s what Southall said he was doing.

“The expenses were — basically, we were in search of a school leader. I met with some of the school leaders of different support groups,” said Southall, who has been the chairman of the C-rated school since 2009.

Patrick Dobard’s name was scribbled on one receipt at Houston’s and appeared to be crossed off a second. At the time, he was superintendent of the Recovery School District, which oversaw Harney. Now he’s head of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that invests in schools.

Dobard said he didn’t recall meeting with Southall on either of those dates.  “I never had him pay for any meal for me,” Dobard said.

The school transferred from the control of the Recovery School District to Orleans Parish schools last summer.

A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board said the district didn’t oversee Harney at the time the purchases were made, but going forward, charter board members must comply with the state ethics law, as required by district policy.

Southall’s use of the credit card is not without precedent. During the 2014-15 school year, Milestone Academy’s CEO D’Juan Hernandez put $13,000 on a school credit card, including $4,000 in payments to Tulane University, where his daughter was a student, and $500 for plane tickets for a family vacation to Florida, and almost $700 at a club the night that high school daughter was a maid at the Zulu ball.

Hernandez resigned and paid back the money.

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...