Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. Credit: Dominic Scott / The Lens

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy’s board of directors voted in a meeting on Monday to give its president the power to negotiate the surrender of the Central City school’s charter to the Orleans Parish School Board.

Board President Rev. Charles Southall III said the board wanted to act in the best interest of its students and work with the school district. The school will not close mid-year because of the decision. Instead, it’s expected that the Orleans Parish school district will take it over when the charter surrender is complete.

Last month, Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. called for the embattled organization’s board to resign and surrender its charter so the district could directly operate the school. He said he would not renew the school’s charter at the end of this year due to its failure to comply with state law and district policies. Then, Lewis went a step further and announced he would seek to revoke Harney’s charter mid-year.

”There was no, according to our knowledge, mismanagement of funds.”—The Rev. Charles Southall, Harney charter school board president

“It’s been very difficult,” Southall said of serving on the volunteer board. He said the board wants to cooperate with the district.

“We have done our best. But as a result of some of the things that, I feel as a board that we did not discover — that staff had to deal with — until after the fact. And we tried to correct them as they were made known to us.”

The school has received an array of warnings from the school district over the last year — knocking them for financial irregularities, special education problems and failing to provide public records on time.

After confirming The Lens’ reporting that the school improperly held onto tens of thousands of dollars in employee retirement contributions for weeks or months, the district requested three years of finances from the school and decided to hire a forensic auditor to review the school’s finances.

A forensic audit report was completed in October. Southall said it did not reveal any findings that weren’t already in the school’s annual audits.

“There was no, according to our knowledge, mismanagement of funds,” he said, acknowledging there had been some delayed financial reports.

The Lens found that the school’s operating account was frequently overdrawn while a board account sat flush. The school’s bank statements were sent to Southall’s church.

Audits found credit cards purchases often lacked the required paperwork explaining the expense. The Lens reported that Southall used the school’s credit card to pay for restaurant meals, apparently including alcohol. The recent forensic audit found that the credit card was used for $2,994.35 in restaurant spending in 2016 and 2017, accounting for 34 percent of the school’s credit card spending.

The Orleans Parish School District did not respond to a request for comment Monday night. Several district staff members were present at the meeting which was otherwise fairly empty with less than 10 people total. Litouri Smith was one of the staffers present. He is the district’s executive director of school support and operations. When Mahalia Jackson Elementary School shut down, he served as its director its final year.

”I really beg, Orleans Parish School Board, to do your part.”—Harney charter school parent

The district recently announced it is hiring an elementary school principal. But the job description, posted in November, does not specifically mention Harney. The position will last until June 30, 2019.

Harney’s board held a 45-minute closed-door executive session Monday night on the status of a lawsuit filed by Harney’s former principal that names the school and its board members. There was no public update afterwards.

Upon reconvening, Southall said it was time to examine the school’s path forward and talk about the possibility of surrendering the charter. He made a few short remarks and no other board members weighed in.

Then board member Ashton Ryan Jr., the former head of the now defunct First NBC Bank, made a motion.

“I’d like the board to vote to empower our board chairman to begin negotiations and ultimately to sign a resolution voluntarily surrendering the Harney charter upon reaching satisfactory agreement among the parties,” Ryan said.

The mother of a Harney student spoke during public comment on the item. Most of her comment was about one teacher and the administration. In closing, she asked the district to step up.

“I really beg, Orleans Parish School Board, to do your part,” she said. “Take the school back. I’m begging you please.”

The motion passed unanimously.

It’s unclear exactly what will happen next. When Cypress Academy’s board voted to close in May, it was near the end of teachers’ annual contracts. The district agreed to run the school directly for two years. The district interviewed Cypress teachers who applied when hiring the school’s new staff.

Lewis has made it clear the district would take over Harney, which would mean students would finish the school year there. But it’s unclear whether teachers will stay on or have to go through a hiring process.

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...