School district warns Coghill, refers board member reimbursements to Orleans DA and state auditor

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The Orleans Parish school district has given Mary D. Coghill Charter School its most severe warning and has tipped off several governmental oversight agencies about its concerns. 

In a warning letter sent in late June detailing financial management concerns and possible charter board overreach, a district official wrote that the district’s “observations will also be shared with Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Orleans Parish District Attorney, and the Louisiana Board of Ethics.”

Senior Equity and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson’s three-page letter details potentially inappropriate reimbursements to a board member, a computer purchase using federal funding that violated board policy, teacher appreciation day expenses of $8,709 and violations of district policy regarding alcohol consumption.

Orleans schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. sent a letter detailing the financial matters to Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera at the end of June. 

Coghill is a D-rated charter school with about 600 students located on the 4600 block of Mirabeau Avenue. The school’s charter contract is up for renewal in December. 

Board overreach

The Better Choice Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Coghill, “has failed to follow financial procedures regarding reimbursements,” Peterson wrote. Board member Eric Jones, she wrote, received reimbursements of about $600 without proper supporting documentation. 

That could be a violation of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics, she wrote. Charter school board members are subject to those rules. 

The board’s involvement in the school appears to extend beyond appropriate boundaries. Generally, charter boards hire the school’s top employee, approve a balanced budget, and hold monthly meetings to assess the organization, but are not involved in day-to-day decisions at the school level. 

However, the district “has previously cited Better Choice Foundation regarding its board members involvement in daily activities at the school,” Peterson wrote. The board is tasked with hiring a CEO, and “does not hire all the school staff,” she wrote. 

The school’s website currently lists multiple management vacancies, including “head of school,” principal, chief financial officer, director of operations and data manager. 

At a board meeting last month, the charter group ratified a purchase of four computers for $5,892 using federal funding. The district believes the charter board was in violation of its own policies. 

“At the time the computers were purchased, there was no board approval, which seems to be required for purchases in excess of $5,000,” Peterson wrote. 

Better Choice Foundation board president Audrey Woods did not respond to a request for comment. 

Teacher Appreciation Day 

Nearly $9,000 in expenses related to Teacher Appreciation Day has also caught the eye of district officials. Purchases included $2,902 for catering, $2,000 in gift cards and $260 for alcohol, according to the district.  

Peterson said the charter board “may be in violation of the Louisiana Constitution in that the costs associated with Teacher Appreciation Day could constitute an unconstitutional donation.” She noted the gift cards could violate state ethics law if they were considered a gift  “received by a public employee for their regular employment.”

Additionally, Peterson wrote that the school “violated OPSB Policy KF as it relates to alcohol consumption on school board property.” The policy requires a written request to serve alcohol.

“School Board policy also prohibits its employees from consuming alcohol during the school day,” Peterson wrote. “Better Choice Foundation should have similar prohibitions.”

In response to the allegations, the charter board must provide information on financial policies, the source of the funds used on Teacher Appreciation Day and additional documentation supporting the reimbursements to board member Jones. That information is due Friday. 

If Better Choice Foundation can’t justify the board member reimbursements, Peterson wrote, the charter group “shall submit a written explanation of how these funds were paid back to them by Dr. Jones.”

The district is also requiring each charter board member attend eight hours of training related to charter board governance this fall.

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