Schools
 

Harney charter school principal fears board may fire her at Friday meeting

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy’s principal Ashonta Wyatt is worried she could be fired after questioning board spending and now being listed as the subject of a closed door discussion of “personnel matters” tomorrow.

She’s concerned that what she characterizes as a weak defamation claim against her from lawyer Juan LaFonta could be used as a false pretext to fire her at an emergency meeting called for Friday afternoon.

Last week, LaFonta sent the board a cease and desist letter regarding what his lawyer says were defamatory statements made by Wyatt. The letter was sent to the board president’s Baton Rouge home. The lawyer, Douglass Alongia, wrote that LaFonta has received threats from outside parties because of the remarks.

If Wyatt’s “defamatory statements” continued, the lawyer wrote, “we will pursue all available legal remedies against the Orleans Parish charter school system, the Spirit of Excellence Academy, Inc. board of directors, and the Edgar P. Harney, Spirit of Excellence Academy school and its administration.”

The letter included a Facebook post written by a friend of Wyatt’s that read “With or without you Juan LaFonta ……. WE WILL GET THIS DONE!!!!!” The post urged people to donate athletic supplies to Harney and linked to the school’s Facebook page.

Wyatt, who was tagged in the post, commented with a screen grab of what appears to be an earlier Facebook message exchange where she asked LaFonta to donate equipment.

The image shows LaFonta, or someone using what appears to be his personal Facebook account, responded, “Very informal and not proper to solicit.”

Under her comment, Wyatt wrote, “Unfortunately, this was his reply seconds before he blocked me.”

Alongia did not answer The Lens’ questions regarding what exactly is defamatory, saying he had no comment.

A defamatory statement must not only be harmful to someone’s reputation — it must also be false.

He also wouldn’t answer questions about why the school or the school district could be held responsible for something Wyatt wrote using a personal social media account. He then referred The Lens to Harney’s board.

“If you read this letter, I think that they believe that this is an avenue to come at me with,” Wyatt said. “I just don’t think that [board president Charles Southall] wants me here.”

In a brief phone interview, Southall would not say if the board plans to terminate Wyatt at the meeting.

“If Ms. Wyatt is terminated, and that’s not our intent, it won’t be because of that letter,” He said. “And that’s not our approach to this meeting.”

Wyatt was hired mid-August and is the fifth new leader at the school since its longtime CEO left in 2017.

Wyatt said she had questions about the board’s spending.

“Initially, the first thing that I questioned was the check to Lisa Royal,” she said of the board’s secretary who works out of Southall’s church and receives $18,000 a year from the school.

“She doesn’t work for the school,” Wyatt said. “I’m supposed to be able to ask these questions.”

Typically board secretaries are members of the board and volunteers.

The embattled Central City charter school appears likely to close at the end of the year. It’s received warnings for a litany of issues from special education, to financial management and improperly withholding employees’ retirement contributions.

A recent letter to parents said several of the notices remain unresolved.

The board is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Thursday.

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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.