A lawsuit filed last summer that temporarily kept the doors open at the fledgling James M. Singleton Charter School — following an announcement from NOLA Public Schools officials that the district would seek to revoke its charter — has been dismissed, just days before the school’s charter expired on June 30.
After mounting allegations of financial and special education problems, on top of allegedly forged background checks that led to the resignation of the CEO and CFO in the spring of 2021, the district abruptly moved to close the 230-student charter school last summer. That would have been one year ahead of the contract’s expiration and a highly unusual summer closure.
The F-rated school — founded in 2006 — was run by and housed at the Dryades YMCA in Central City. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 309 students in kindergarten through 8th grade were enrolled in the school. The site also hosts a prekindergarten program that is run through the state and unaffected by the loss of the charter contract.
Late June last year, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced he would seek to revoke the group’s charter contract — effectively closing the school.
But after then-NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. announced his plan, the group filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court and was granted a temporary restraining order against the district. That order gave brief reprieve to school faculty and parents and later that month the judge ordered the two sides to go to mediation and forbade the district from interfering with the independent charter’s operations. That allowed the school to open as planned in August for the new school year.
But with the charter now expired and not renewed by the Orleans Parish School Board, it is no longer authorized to operate as a public school in New Orleans. Singleton — one of four city public schools to permanently close its doors this spring – held its final day of classes on May 25.
Singleton’s final year
The restraining order was issued in July, leaving little time for the district to move ahead with the early closure. Students were enrolled and set to begin classes the following month. Then, in late July, with the order in place, the district backed off its plan to close the school.
At one point in late July, it appeared the district cut Singleton off from its summer enrollment application. Parents can check the district website during the summer to see which schools still have open seats for the upcoming school year. Singleton’s absence was of note because the district had cut off enrollment to failing charters in the past.
After The Lens inquired, Singleton once again appeared on the site as an enrollment option.
School started in August as planned, but there were still issues. Singleton was the only charter in the city run by a group that was charged with running a separate enterprise, which became an issue in the lawsuit due to the district’s attempt to recover more than $1 million it alleged the Dryades YMCA’s operating board owed to the school. The issues continued to mount this school year, including the district’s allegations the school had failed to follow state transparency laws.
In October, Orleans Parish District Attorney launched an investigation into the group.
Office spokesman Curtis Elmore said the agency is “committed to a complete and thorough investigation into this matter.”
“We are currently in constant communication with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor as part of that process,” he wrote in an email this week. “As the investigation is ongoing, we are unable to provide further comment.”
On December 13, just days before a hearing was set to take place in the case, the charter group and district agreed to have the judge decide the case on briefs. That decision wasn’t filed until late June, when it was dismissed.
NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district appreciated the case’s dismissal. But, the district is still waiting to settle up financially with the charter school. After charter schools cease operations their nonprofit operators must return public funds to their authorizer.
“The District is awaiting information from Dryades to reconcile the finances and determine the amount that must be returned to the District,” she wrote.
The lawsuit opened up a venue for the district to demand financial records from the charter school. In September, the district subpoenaed financial records from the charter school’s financial contractors.
In December, when charter school renewal contracts were announced, Singleton was not granted a new contract. The case sat still for months as the school year continued.
At a February board meeting, Lewis hinted that Dryades may be using public money to upgrade their privately owned facility which was soon to not have students. He mentioned his staff was evaluating “purchases that are being made potentially for building enhancements for a building that’s not going to be occupied.”
Singleton Principal Erika Mann said the school purchased hand driers for the bathrooms but has yet to see an itemized list from the district of the alleged “enhancements.”
“It’s traumatic to close a school period, for the students, for the community,” she said.
Mann asked the district to specifically identify the “building enhancements,” which The Lens has asked for in the past. She also insisted that the school did not necessarily need to close, but could have been taken over by another operator to keep it in the community.
“Give the school to another management organization,” she said. “You don’t have to close the school. Some of those kids — this will be their fifth school.”
In February, Alfonzo said the district was evaluating that work.
“Purchases made by any school for building enhancements during the end of its contract using public funds are a concern because of the need to ensure that public funds are benefitting public school students,” she wrote. “Enhancements to a building which will cease to be used for educating students at the end of the school’s contract are necessarily a concern. The District is working with all schools through the closeout process to ensure that all publicly-funded assets are being used appropriately and returned as necessary.”
She said the district is still working to determine how much, if any, funds are owed.
Update: This story was updated comment from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.