Charter leaders in line of fire

Passions reveal divisions at Lycée

Ask anyone associated with Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orleans charter school about its troubles, and no one will say lack of parental involvement is among them.

Frustrated by what it characterized as poor leadership, misguided management and lack of transparency, a small group of Lycée parents asked an attorney to file an eight-page letter with board leaders detailing their complaints and demanding two board members step down.

“Lycée is a school worth fighting for,” read the letter, sent by 15 parents calling themselves the Rebuilding Trust Working Group.

In response, 62 other parents signed a letter saying they support the current administration and direction of the school. They pointed to the recent hire of a new school leader who has improved communication at the school and acted quickly to fill vacancies.

Signatories from both sides were among 100 people who attended a tense board meeting for the school Jan. 14. A state Education Department official, who was there to discuss his role in helping guide the school, complimented the parents on their passionate regard for the school.

Concerns at this tiny, two-campus charter — with only 340 students from pre-kindergarten through second grade — had reached the ear of state Superintendent John White. He called in the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and asked officials there to work with the school to secure a permanent chief executive officer.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley, the association is involved in an unprecedented project at the school — contracting with management consulting company EMH Strategy to find a new school leader and, she said, helping the school identify its weaknesses and make changes to improve.

Roemer Shirley told parents Monday that the school was singled out for the work because it appears to be academically fit and financially mending, but it needs some managerial shoring up.

Board President Jean Montes and another board member, Dan Henderson, said they stepped in to run the school following the Nov. 23 resignation of Jean-Jacques Grandiere, the second school leader to resign in less than two years.

Montes then confirmed he alone hired an academic director and interim CEO, Gisele Schexnider, a former teacher at the McGehee School for Girls, without posting the job or first holding a board meeting. A board meeting held later “ratified” that decision with little discussion.

Parents involved with the Rebuilding Trust Working Group wrote White on Dec. 26 asking him to investigate the board’s hiring and firing decisions, expressing concern that they have no basis to know how qualified Schexnider is for the leadership post.

“Her resume has not been shared with the public,” their letter said. “By her own admission, she has never worked within the construct of the French curriculum, and she has never been in a supervisory position over teachers.”

Though it is only in its second year of operation, Lycée has experienced mounting troubles in the past year:

The Rebuilding Trust Work Group wants Montes and Saleun to quit, or at least step aside temporarily while the lawsuit is pending. The group also has outlined its concerns surrounding a now-$75,000 contract with a company whose owners, the parents alleged, have personal and business dealings with Montes and Saleun.

Sweet Olive Design and Development owners Mary Carstens and Lora Reugger deny that anything about their contract is ethically flawed and maintain they’ve brought in $900,000 to the school through fundraising and other work.

They say neither of them met Montes until early 2011, when they volunteered their services to help the school with its fundraising efforts. Reugger said she had known Saleun since about 2009 because their kids attended the same school. She said she’d become friends with Saleun in 2010 but that she doesn’t believe that relationship had any influence over the business contract because it was other school officials who approached her about doing the work.

Carstens said she did do some work on the website for Saleun’s restaurant Chateau du Lac Bistro in Metairie, where Saleun’s husband is chef, but that it was after she was already working for Lycée.

Furthering concerns, Lycée’s annual financial audit cited the board for paying Otis almost $30,000 over three months following her resignation without a contract or a board vote approving the payments.

Otis has declined to talk about it. But when Otis announced her intent in April to resign, she said she would do so effective the end of the school year.

Neither she nor school leaders have answered questions last week about the actual timing of her departure. The auditor, Todd Tournillon of Postlethwaite & Netterville, declined to comment about the matter. When asked about how his company confirms details such as termination dates, he said, “The report stands on its own.”

The audit also found that the school spent $627 on a cell phone used by a school board member — a violation of state laws barring charter board members from receiving compensation for anything other than actual expenses incurred.

Former board member Tom Klingler confirmed last Tuesday that the cell phone was his, though the audit does not name him.

Klingler reimbursed the school for the cell phone charges, the audit says, but the matter was referred to the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

Robert Rachal, the attorney representing the Rebuilding Trust Working Group, said he’s optimistic that with the help of EMH and Roemer Shirley, the issues his clients raised will be resolved.

“The Lycée board is broken,” he said, “and over time this has begun to threaten the success and even the ultimate existence of the school. Ignoring these problems is part of what has gotten us to this point … We are not going to back down, and our goal remains to work to fix — not ignore — the problems so that Lycée can achieve it’s full success.”

This story is published in cooperation with the Internet news site The Lens, www.thel
ensnola.org.