Harney employee pay remains a question, pending Thursday school board vote

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The Orleans Parish school district — which this month took over Edgar Harney elementary school from its charter operator — needs school board approval to make the school’s payroll next week.

But at an Orleans Parish School Board budget committee meeting Tuesday, board members deferred on a request to increase the school district’s general fund budget by about $1.2 million, money that would be earmarked for Harney’s operating expenses. Committee members on Tuesday said they were concerned about a lack of detail from district officials as to how the funds would be spent.

The full board is scheduled to take a final vote on the budget adjustment at its Thursday meeting.

The request won’t cost the district anything. It doesn’t take any money out of the district’s general fund. It’s a budget adjustment reflecting per-pupil funding the district gets for Harney students and the expenses associated with running the school.

Chief Operating Officer Eric Seling attempted to explain the request to the committee.

“This is solely recognizing the local and state revenue that is coming in for these students,” Seling said, adding that it would not require pulling money from the district’s reserve fund. “This is allowing us to create a budget for Harney.”

Prior to the district takeover, finalized over winter break, the money would have gone directly to the school’s charter board. Under school board policy, the school district can’t spend it on Harney salaries and other day-to-day operating expenses without the board’s approval.

“The district must have an adopted budget for Harney in order to pay employees working at Harney,” district spokeswoman Ambria Washington wrote in an email. She said school officials would figure out a way to pay employees should the Thursday vote fail but did not offer details.

“At this time, we‘re working with members of our board to ensure they understand how this funding process will work for Harney.”

In light of repeated allegations of financial and operational mismanagement by Harney’s charter board, Orleans district Superintendent Henderson Lewis announced in the fall that he would seek to revoke the nonprofit’s charter and assume control of the school mid-year. In response, the nonprofit board surrendered the school — and the responsibility for paying for it — to the district earlier this month.

This is the second time in recent memory that the committee expressed doubts about Harney budget items. Last month, the committee declined a $600,000 request for Harney. The December item, however, differed from the current request in that it would have required reallocating money from the district’s reserves.

On Tuesday, board member Ben Kleban said he was displeased with the lack of a detailed budget and asked to defer the budget item to next month.

“I’m concerned that we continue to get large requests like this, whether its a fund balance request or a budget amendment, without any kind of backup,” Kleban said.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. interjected: “I think we have a misunderstanding.”

Kleban said he just wanted to know how the money would be spent. “I don’t understand what our plan is at Harney from a financial perspective so I can’t support it.”

He offered a motion to defer until February. And board member Leslie Ellison asked Seling how that would affect day-to-day operations at the Central City school.

“The first payroll for Harney employees is Jan. 25 so without authorization for how we spend funds I would be spending money without an approved budget for Harney,” Seling said.

Kleban withdrew his motion to defer so Ellison could offer a motion to forward it to the full board for Thursday’s board meeting, contingent upon the district providing more details on Harney’s budget.

Since taking over the school this month, the district has vendors covering busing, janitorial services and kitchen staff. Harney employees had to reapply for their jobs to finish out the school year. Those who were hired have been back started Jan. 7. Students returned Jan. 14.

In previous takeovers, the district has allocated extra money to operate schools, such as with Cypress Academy. Additionally, in recent years, the district has had to allocate extra funding for budget deficits at its direct-run schools. Cypress is approaching a $1 million deficit this school year, according to a Tuesday presentation.

Seling also said the district is working with Harney’s former charter board to attempt to recoup federal funding the school received. The district is seeking advice on the issue from the Louisiana Department of Education.

“As of late this morning, their call was that we would not be able to use those funds, which is almost $400,000,” Seling said. “We’re going to continue to work with them because we believe we should be able to use that Title money.”

In her emailed statement, Washington said the charter group would be obligated to return any leftover money to the district.

“At this time, we don’t anticipate a fund balance being returned from Spirit of Excellence to OPSB.”

Seling told the committee the bottom line is the district needs funds for Harney one way or another.

“The important thing is that we do have some budget allocation to pay for ongoing operations at Harney — otherwise we can’t operate Harney.”

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