Schools
 

‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Harney charter school to close at end of school year

Dominic Scott / The Lens

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy.

Orleans Parish school district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy parents and staff crammed into the Central City charter school Monday night that it will close at the end of school year.

He also called for all members of the embattled charter school board to step down. Lewis said the district discovered matters it has referred to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, which handles criminal investigations. Lewis said the school district has also alerted the Louisiana Legislative Auditor about the school.

“We didn’t just get here last week or this month,” district administrator Amanda Aiken said. “There have been ongoing compliance issues with Harney.”

Lewis and Aiken took turns explaining the problems at the small charter school. The school has been plagued by financial mismanagement, Aiken said, noting that the school’s bank statements were addressed to the Carondelet Street church where the board president, the Rev. Charles Southall, serves as pastor. Meanwhile, Southall’s home address in Baton Rouge is the one that Harney listed with the state agency that distributes per-pupil funding to schools, another potential violation.

She also noted the school improperly withheld tens of thousands of dollars in employee retirement contributions for weeks or months and did not fully document credit card expenses.

And she mentioned the school signing an accounting contract with Brent Washington, even as he was being paid as the school’s chief financial officer. Washington is under investigation by the state ethics board over the contract.

“All these non-compliance issues we are addressing is not the spirit of excellence in my experience,” Lewis said.

Southall was among the crowd. He left shortly after the meeting and did not return a call for comment Monday night.

“I’ve been an educator for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lewis said.

The parents, staffers, community members and students listened closely as Lewis announced the closing, assuring the crowd that students would receive closing school priority. That means they’ll get priority placement in the city’s centralized enrollment lottery called OneApp.

“I’m shocked,” parent Shernita Day told The Lens. “I didn’t know the school was closing at all. I’m just shocked.”

Day’s daughter, an eighth grade student, stood behind her at the meeting. “I feel for the other kids,” Day said.

On Friday, Harney’s board voted to suspend Principal Ashonta Wyatt without pay pending an investigation.

When Lewis told the crowd that Southall said the investigation into Wyatt would be complete by December he was met with deafening boos.

Ashley Hampton, an administrative assistant at the school, said employees arrived today not knowing who was running the school. They soon found out a former administrator, Cheryl Lawson, who’d been fired by Wyatt, was in charge.

“Who hired her back?” Hampton asked. “Is she able to walk the halls?”

Lewis and Aiken said the district was trying to determine if the board had met to hire a replacement for Wyatt. Late last week, Wyatt told The Lens she was worried about being fired. She said Southall wanted her out because she questioned board spending, including payments to Lisa Royal, an employee at Southall’s church. The Lens previously reported that Royal was given a contract for $18,000 a year from the school to work as the board secretary. Typically, board secretaries are members of school boards and serve voluntarily.

Lewis and Aiken took questions ranging from Wyatt’s employment status to a parent asking why her student was placed at Harney if it was closing to broad questions about how the district decides to close schools.

Lewis clarified the district’s role versus the charter school board’s role several times. There were several questions Lewis and Aiken said they couldn’t answer and casually redirected at Southall. But he wasn’t given the microphone at the district-called meeting and remained seated.

One attendee asked whether the district could step in now and run the school. Lewis said that would be up to the charter group’s board but that the district could take the school over if the charter group no longer ran it.

As the crowd grew louder, Aiken called up all district staff members in attendance to introduce them and have them take parents’ questions individually.

District administrators said a new school could open in the building, but that has not yet been determined.

After the meeting, Ashana Bigard, who attended the meeting with Family and Friends of Incarcerated Children, said she was going to help parents organize as parents did at Cypress Academy last year. Parent protests at Cypress following its charter board’s decision to close led the district to assume direct control of the school.

“Why do children have to be held accountable for adult mistakes?” Bigard asked, noting a lot of students who attend live in the neighborhood.

“He can keep this school open,” she said referring to Lewis. “That’s within his purview.”

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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.