Months after an investigation found allegedly forged employee background checks at the James M. Singleton Charter School, the NOLA Public Schools district now claims that Singleton’s operator, the Dryades YMCA, has rehired an employee who was identified in the previous probe as being legally ineligible to work in schools due to their criminal record.
In March, the district cracked down on the school after discovering falsified background checks — or none at all — for some employees, including one that state law prohibited from being employed at a school due to a past conviction or no-contest plea. That investigation led to the resignation of the YMCA’s CEO and CFO. The CFO was later arrested on charges of falsifying public records and theft of $431, but has yet to be formally charged by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams’ office.
The district’s new warning letter to the school — for “improper employment” — is dated Oct. 8, just days after the charter group made its case for a contract renewal to the Orleans Parish School Board. The F-rated charter school’s contract is set to expire at the end of this school year, and it currently does not meet the district’s renewal standards. Without a new contract, the school will close or be forced to find a new operator.
The letter is the latest in a string of warnings ranging from operational issues, financial problems and special education failures. Those numerous warnings led the district to announce it would seek to revoke Singleton’s contract over the summer, effectively closing the school. But the charter group sued the district and was granted a temporary restraining order that allowed the school to open as scheduled in August.
The warning is the second so-called level 2 notice of non-compliance the district has issued the school this year for employing the individual, following the original March notice. Neither the school nor the district has identified the employee in question.
“As a result of the issuance of the Notice of Non-Compliance, Level 2, the disqualified individual was terminated,” wrote district Interim Chief Accountability Officer Litouri Smith. “It has been discovered that the same individual that was the subject of the prior Notice of Non-Compliance, Level 2 has since been re-hired and again presumably in violation of [state law],” which prohibits people convicted of certain crimes from working as teachers, bus drivers and other positions in schools.
Smith wrote that school officials must terminate the individual by Oct. 11. School officials did not respond to a request for comment.
On Thursday, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said it appears Singleton met the deadline.
“All decisions concerning the employment of Singleton staff are made by Singleton and/or the Dryades YMCA, not the District,” she wrote in an email. “It is the District’s understanding, based on communications from Dryades, that the employee has been terminated.”
Revocation and ongoing lawsuit
NOLA Public Schools officials announced in late June that they intended to revoke Singleton’s charter rather than wait for the fall when the district reviews schools and makes decisions about whether to renew. (Unlike a revocation, a non-renewal doesn’t take effect until the following school year, meaning that if the district chooses not to renew Singleton’s charter, it would still operate through spring 2022.) Days after the announcement, the Dryades YMCA sued the district, obtaining a temporary restraining order that halted revocation proceedings.
While Singleton’s charter was not revoked over the summer, district officials say they maintain the right to move for revocation, as noted in the most recent warning letter.
A recent court filing from Dryades YMCA argues otherwise. The school’s lawyer, Charline Gipson, at a Wednesday court hearing asserted its argument that revocation was off the table was based on a September letter that Superintendent Henderson Lewis sent to Singleton parents. The letter was sent home as part of the charter renewal process to six schools, including Singleton, that did not meet renewal requirements.
“All schools participating in this process will continue to serve students for the remainder of this school year as normal,” Lewis wrote in the letter.
But asked about revocation, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district could still move to take away the contract if necessary.
“No, the district has not stated that it was waiving its contractual and statutory right to revoke the Dryades YMCA’s charter at any time in the future,” Alfonzo wrote in an email. “Pursuant to the Dryades Charter School Agreement, La. R.S. 17:3992(C) and OPSB Policy HB, the district may revoke the charter at any time, in accordance with La. R.S. 17:10.7.1 and OPSB Policy HB, for any one of the bases specified in the Charter School Agreement, OPSB Policy, or Louisiana law.”
The lawsuit between the two sides remains ongoing. Most recently the two met at a hearing Wednesday regarding the district’s request for the court to approve subpoenas for documents from three financial contractors used by the school.
But the hearing was postponed due to an oversight. That didn’t stop the two sides from talking about other matters, like revocation, with Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley. Gipson argued the school was using the lawsuit to pry into matters beyond the roots of the suit, which was intended — and did — keep the school open this school year.
“I remember these issues coming up,” Medley said. “And it’s kind of like opening a door when you get a TRO.”
The two sides will likely meet in court again at the end of the month. Lewis is expected to announce whether the charter will be renewed at November’s board meeting.