Mary D. Coghill School in Gentilly Woods.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics has charged two Better Choice Foundation board members and two former employees of the school it ran — Mary D. Coghill Charter School — for allegedly violating a state law prohibiting agency heads or members of school boards from employing their close family members. 

In a report from the 2018-2019 school year released Monday, auditors found that two board members “each had an immediate family member employed at the foundation in violation of R.S. 42:1119,” the state’s nepotism law.

The board voted to issue the charges earlier this month, and published them last week. They allege Marian Madison worked as a content coordinator at Coghill while her sister, Gretchen Bradford, who was also charged, served on the Better Choice Foundation board’s governance committee. Madison went on to become a principal at Coghill. Neither Bradford nor Madison responded to an email Monday.

Similarly, the board charged Alexis Kendrick, who worked as a resource specialist at Coghill from March 2019 to January 2020, while her mother Cathy Kendrick served on the nonprofit’s board. Cathy Kendrick has served on the board since 2017 and was also charged. She is still listed on the nonprofit’s website as a board member. However, the nonprofit no longer runs the school. 

There is a specific exception in state law that allows certified teachers to work in schools run by a member of their immediate family. There is also an exception that takes new charter schools into account — it allows an immediate family member of a school board member to work in a new school system created in 2006 or later “provided that the immediate family member was previously employed in a similar capacity by a school board within the same parish for a period of at least one year prior to the creation of the new school system.”

The Gentilly Woods charter school has since changed hands. It was taken over by the NOLA Public Schools district on July 1 when its charter contract expired. It is the only school the district directly runs, the rest are charter schools. 

Last fall, district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. opted not to renew the nonprofit’s charter contract due to academic performance — Coghill has been rated an ‘F’ school by the state — and several official warnings alleging that the school violated laws or district policies, including warnings over its special education services and financial management. 

In February, the charter group sued the district in federal court, claiming that Henderson went against the will of the Orleans Parish School Board when he moved to take over the school. But that lawsuit was dismissed on June 30. 

Both Kendrick and Bradford are listed as board members of the nonprofit on the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website. Neither could be reached Monday. 

Marian Madison still appears to work at the school, now under district oversight. In mid-June, the NOLA Public Schools district confirmed it had offered Marian Madison a position as an instructional coach with the school. 

“At this time there are no action steps for the District to take. Better Choice Foundation is no longer operating any charter schools,” spokeswoman Dominique Ellis Falcon wrote in an email to The Lens, when asked to comment about her hiring in light of the ethics charge.  

“The Orleans Parish School Board independently hired faculty and staff to work at Coghill,” she wrote. “Marian Madison is among those hired.”

Other city charter school organizations have faced nepotism cases and the cases have dragged on for years. In 2014, four family members working for Friends of King Schools were charged with violating nepotism laws. In 2018, the ethics board ordered then-CEO Doris Roche-Hicks to step down from her role. She announced she would retire and later moved into another role at the organization.

Coghill’s board has attracted the attention of auditors before. Last fall, board member Eric Jones resigned amid claims he had improperly received reimbursements flagged in an audit, which he later returned, and that he had overstepped his role as a board member.

The nepotism charges will now go before the Ethics Adjudicatory Board. 

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...