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Week in Review: Asbestos clean-up at two schools; School had money when it deferred benefits

Harney charter’s bank account stretched thin while board account sat flush

On a day Harney charter school was supposed to transfer about $10,000 in retirement contributions to its employees’ accounts, the school only had $133 in its operating account. It didn’t make the payment.

On that same day, Harney’s board account had $537,562.

Over the next three months, the school improperly withheld at least $55,000 from employees’ retirement accounts. That money wasn’t paid until early January and mid February.

The Lens examined 1,200 pages of financial documents obtained through a public records request and learned the school routinely had money in its board account while the school’s operating account was stretched thin.

The school’s board president and former chief financial officer are at odds when explaining how money was transferred between the two accounts.

The late retirement payments didn’t include any interest or money to account for what employees may have made in investments.

Those delays could violate federal tax guidelines.

In a similar case in Baltimore, delays in retirement transfers led to two civil lawsuits against the CEO of a drug rehab and mental health nonprofit. He later pleaded guilty to theft for taking $53,000 from his employees’ 403(b) accounts in 2009 and 2010, using the money to pay company expenses.

After school was closed for asbestos concerns, relocation site faced the same problem this week

Two green construction dumpsters with “DANGER asbestos” warnings taped on them sat in front of the old McDonogh 35 building on Kerlerec Street Thursday morning. They were sealed with plastic and bright orange tape.

The building was supposed to be a safe haven this fall for relocated Lafayette Academy students. That school has been temporarily shuttered after a state inspection found that it may be contaminated with asbestos due to summer construction work.

But this week, Lafayette parents learned that McDonogh 35 also needed a clean-up after contractors — working on the air conditioning system — disturbed asbestos-containing material.

Lafayette parents knew there was asbestos in McDonogh 35, Tuere Jones, who has two kids enrolled at the school, told The Lens in an interview. But the building was safe until construction workers installing pipes above the school’s ceiling tiles accidentally disturbed asbestos-containing insulation, possibly releasing asbestos into the school.

Asbestos is dangerous when it is airborne. The Orleans Parish school district ordered an immediate evacuation of the campus Monday to protect workers.

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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.