The NOLA Public Schools district early this month issued the Dryades YMCA governing board, which runs the soon-to-close James M. Singleton Charter School, a warning letter accusing it of violating the state Open Meetings Law when it disbanded its Education Advisory Committee — intended to oversee the school.
The committee was created at the insistence of the district a few years ago after concerns over the nonprofit’s management of the school. The district was concerned about the board intermingling the business and finances of the YMCA it operates separately from Singleton Charter School. The committee was designed to help separate the two.
The arrangement is unique among charter structures in the city — it’s the only organization that operates a nonprofit entity separate from the charter school it oversees. For years, Dryades ran both the fitness center and the school as a single legal entity, a fact that complicated efforts by the district last year to recover hundreds of thousands of public dollars it alleged that Dryades owes the school. (The Dryades YMCA responded to the claim by saying it could not owe money to itself.)
The recent allegations follow district warnings that have mounted over the past several years. They include issues ranging from financial mismanagement, allegedly forged employee background checks, special education problems and more. All of which culminated in the district’s attempt to close the school suddenly over the summer — that was stopped by a lawsuit and now the school is set to close in May, when its contract expires.
In the Feb. 8 letter, district Interim Chief Schools Accountability Officer Litouri Smith alleged the charter group’s governing board had disbanded the committee, despite the fact that the committee is mandated in Dryades’ bylaws, and also alleged the move took place in a meeting that was not publicly announced. That is a violation of the Open Meetings Law, which all public bodies — including the boards overseeing charter schools — are required to comply with. The district told the nonprofit to respond by Feb. 9.
On Feb. 11, Smith sent another letter, stating the nonprofit had failed to respond to the district’s inquiry and escalating the issue to a so-called Notice of Non-Compliance Level 1.
“Since sending the inquiry letter, NOLA PS has received a copy of a letter from DYMCA to the former Chairman of the DYMCA Education Advisory Committee for James M. Singleton Charter School,” the second warning notice says. “This letter was notification that his appointment as chairman was being terminated, effective immediately. It is unclear if this action took place in a publicly noticed board meeting, or in another setting.”
Smith required a response by Feb. 16. On that day, Dryades YMCA board Chairwoman Barbara Lacen-Keller sent a letter to the district simply stating that the board had met the previous day to disband the committee.
“On behalf of the Dryades YMCA New Orleans Board of Directors, this letter serves as official notification that the Board voted to eradicate the Education Advisory Committee in a unanimous vote on February 15, 2022,” she wrote.
“Finally, on behalf of the Dryades YMCA New Orleans Board of Directors, please note that the point of contact for the closing of James M. Singleton Charter School are Head of School [Erika] Mann and the President & Interim Chief Executive Officer,” she wrote.
Neither Lacen-Keller nor Mann responded to a request for comment.
In response, the district is still asking the nonprofit to provide proof that the Feb. 15 meeting, and any other meetings held during January and February, were properly noticed under the state’s Open Meetings Law. The deadline for that was Feb. 18.
District officials did not respond to an inquiry this week asking whether the Dryades YMCA had completed the required tasks.
Dryades YMCA officials called for an emergency meeting on Feb. 21, but there is no agenda on the school’s website. Additional text on the school website suggests the meeting may have been canceled. The next regularly scheduled Dryades meeting is March 8.