Schools
 

Harney charter board fires principal in meeting that may have violated Open Meetings Law

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy’s principal said she was fired Friday in a meeting that may have violated the Louisiana Open Meetings Law.

The principal, Ashonta Wyatt, told The Lens this month that she feared she might lose her job after she questioned board spending.

The Orleans Parish school district has repeatedly cited Harney’s board — which is headed by the Rev. Charles Southall III and includes former First NBC Bank CEO Ashton Ryan — for failing to comply with charter school laws and policies, and its financial practices have been a particular concern. The school is now slated for closure as a result of its governance problems.

In a Monday interview, Wyatt said the board immediately went into a closed-door executive session on Friday. She said she asked that the session, which was about her, be held in public. State law allows the subject of an executive session to determine whether its held in public or private.

“I specifically asked Kenya Rounds for an open session,” Wyatt said referring to the board’s lawyer. She said he denied her request and she left the room.

“That’s when Kelli Peterson stepped in and said that’s not the way that goes,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt said Rounds relented after Peterson, who is the district’s director of equity and compliance, entered the executive session. Then Wyatt and the public were allowed in. In a phone interview, Rounds disputed Wyatt’s account, saying she did not ask for the meeting to be opened until midway through the executive session. When she did, he said, the board opened it.

When the public was allowed back into the room Friday afternoon, Wyatt said board members didn’t seem to know what to do.

“They wanted to do a dog-and-pony show of an executive session,” she said. “They didn’t know what to do when we came in. It was a farce.”

Wyatt said she was told, “because of those findings they were moving to terminate me.”

Wyatt was hired as principal in August. The board suspended her on Nov. 2 pending an investigation, though the board never made clear what was being investigated.

Wyatt told The Lens earlier this month that she believed the board was planning to use what she characterized as a weak defamation claim as a pretext to fire her. In October, lawyer Juan LaFonta sent the school a cease and desist letter alleging that Wyatt defamed him on social media and threatening to sue the school and the Orleans Parish school district.

LaFonta’s attorney, Douglass Alongia, said LaFonta is not pursuing the matter any further.

Wyatt said the moves to end her short tenure at the school followed her questioning board-authorized expenditures, including checks to Lisa Royal, the board’s secretary. She receives $18,000 a year from the school.  Charter school board secretaries are typically members board members who serve on a voluntary basis. Royal also works for Southall’s church.

Wyatt said neither she nor her lawyer received the results of the board’s investigation.

Southall did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Harney has been under intense scrutiny from the Orleans Parish school district for mounting administrative problems, board composition, finances and other matters.

Days after Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told parents the school would close at the end of the school year because he would not renew its contract, he said he would revoke the embattled charter school’s contract mid-year. If that happens, the district will run Harney directly until it closes at the end of the year.

Wyatt also said the board didn’t take public comment on the motion to fire her until after they voted. Rounds denied that but declined further comment, saying only that the meeting minutes will reflect what happened. State law requires the public be allowed to comment on any action items before a vote is taken.

Wyatt said this wasn’t the first time she was kept out of an executive session.

“The last one, they didn’t allow me to come in the executive session,” she said referring to the Nov. 2 meeting when she was suspended. “They prevented me from having the meeting open even though the entire meeting centered on my professional competency.”

She said she complained to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office and will do so again. A spokeswoman for the agency said it does not comment on complaints.

“My goal is to lead my school for the duration of the school year,” Wyatt said. “My children deserve that. My children deserve consistency and stability.”

This story was updated after publication with comments from Harney’s lawyer, Kenya Rounds, and Juan LaFonta’s lawyer, Douglass Alongia.

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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.