Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy has a new principal — again. Late last month, the Central City charter school selected its fourth leader since the departure of its longtime CEO Eileen Williams last year.

At a July 26 meeting, Harney’s board of directors voted to hire Cheryl Lawson as the school’s interim leader. Lawson previously served as assistant principal.

At a meeting one month earlier, the board announced it had hired Nicole Young Smith as its new school leader from a pool of five candidates. There was no public vote or discussion on her selection, which appeared to violate state Open Meetings Law.

It’s unclear if Smith ever took the job, although a July 20 letter from the Orleans Parish school district was addressed to her at the school. She could not be reached for comment.

Leadership turnover is affecting other departments at the small school too. The board fired Brent Washington Sr., its chief financial officer, on June 30, the Rev. Charles Southall III, Harney’s board president, told The Lens.

Washington faces a state ethics investigation for being paid $54,500 over three years to do accounting for the school, in addition to his salary. Public employees are not allowed to contract with their agencies to do work that overlaps with their job duties.

The board is searching for an interim CFO, Southall told The Lens. He did not respond to a request for comment on the new interim principal but the school has posted an opening for a permanent hire.

The last year has been turbulent for the 300-student school.

After Williams left in the summer of 2017, the board selected Lynn Rhodes-Polk in July 2017. But she departed six months later, and the board selected Aisha Jones as its interim school leader. Jones had served as assistant principal under Rhodes-Polk.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School Board, the charter’s new authorizer, was requesting financial information related to Washington’s contracts and company. Harney transitioned from the Recovery School District to OPSB in July of 2017.

The charter school was flagged by auditors and racked up warnings from the state and school board for late financial reports and failing to follow district policy.

Over three months last year, the school withheld at least $55,000 from employees’ retirement accounts. Two days after The Lens first reported that, the district requested a trove of financial documents from the school.

The Lens has been able to review some of those financial documents through a public records request. They showed the school had money to make those payments, but it was in a board account, not the operating account it uses for most bills.

The district is hiring a forensic auditor to investigate Harney and other schools with financial issues.

Orleans Parish school district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said district officials have met with the school’s new leaders and discussed the slew of warnings its received over the last year. The district has cited the school for financial problems and inadequate special education services.

“The administration has also discussed the school’s leadership turnover with Harney’s board and the potential impact it may have on students,” Ellis wrote in an email. “The school district will continue to hold all schools accountable and ensure that schools follow all policies and laws.”

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...