School looked into cheating claim

Officials at Lafayette Academy charter school, whose academic scores have more than doubled in the past five years, acknowledged investigating a cheating allegation on Louisiana’s annual standardized test earlier this year, but decided it was unsubstantiated.

The school’s board has refused to provide details, however.

In response to a public records request filed in July, the board’s president said documents related to the investigation were exempt from public records law because the board anticipated a legal dispute.

In November, the board’s secretary said that any document that may have been created by the attorney looking into the matter was not turned over to the board and thus wasn’t a public record.

Monday, the school board president indicated that a report of the investigation did exist, but he had never seen it.

Lafayette Academy, which is governed by the Choice Foundation, has received acclaim in recent years for its high academic performance. At the end of its first year in 2007, its school performance score was a failing score of 38.6 out of 200. That jumped by 20 points in 2008, another 5 points the next year and at least 10 points each year after that. Its 2012 score is a 93.4, a C under the state’s letter grade system.

Schools have to achieve minimum scores on performance evaluations to avoid state sanctions. The minimum this time is 75 out of 200 points, up from 65 last year. The scores are based mostly on test results.

The scope of the cheating investigation remains unclear.

Jim Huger, president of the Choice Foundation board, would only say that the board concluded that no wrongdoing occurred. The board hired a private attorney, Loretta Mince, to look into the claims. She referred questions to Huger.

“This is a matter that is very murky, and very sort of a ‘he-said, she-said,’ and we investigated it,” Huger said Monday. “Cheating is a very ugly word.”

Charter schools like Lafayette, which are considered their own school districts, are not required to report every allegation of cheating to the Louisiana Department of Education. They must notify the department only if an internal investigation yields evidence of wrongdoing, state education department spokesman Barry Landry said.

In Lafayette’s case, Landry said, the cheating claims were unsubstantiated, so the school would not have to take any further steps.

This is the third time in recent years that such allegations have surfaced at a New Orleans charter school. In 2010, teachers at Miller-McCoy Academy reported to the Recovery School District, which oversees the school, that someone had opened the state’s standardized test in advance to give test-takers extra prep on the questions.

RSD intervened and conducting its own investigation — in addition to the school’s board — that ultimately concluded that some kind of cheating did occur.

The Miller-McCoy board investigation, however, found no evidence of cheating. School officials refused to void their scores but required teachers to undergo training on proper administration of tests.

In August, an Orleans Parish School Board investigation found evidence of cheating at Robert Moton Charter Elementary School. Moton’s board, like Lafayette and McCoy’s, concluded otherwise.

Moton was required to present preventative measures against cheating to the Orleans Parish School Board, which oversees Moton. The faculty member accused of the cheating no longer works at the school. The Lens received a tip in July about an April cheating investigation involving a class at Lafayette Academy and immediately filed a public records request with the school for documents related to that investigation.

In response, Huger simply provided The Lens with a brief email he sent to board members alerting them to the start of the investigation:

“It came to my attention today that there is an allegation of cheating on the LEAP test that has been made by a potential disgruntled teacher at Lafayette. The teacher was passed over for a promotion and out of anger texted that she was going to tell everyone about the cheating on the LEAP test,” the email said.

The email went on to say that Huger had asked Mince to investigate and report back her findings to the board.

“I do not think this will amount to much, but I wanted to update you about this, and will keep you informed as we get more information,” the email concluded.

Huger refused to provide anything further, saying any document created by Mince was privileged. He added later that the employee who alleged the cheating could end up suing the board.

The state public records law makes an exception for “writings, records, or other accounts that reflect the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or theories of an attorney or an expert, obtained or prepared in anticipation of litigation or in preparation for trial.”

Asked how that applied to the cheating investigation, Huger said “there were a variety of possible legal disputes that could arise” related to the disgruntled employee.

In an April memo provided to The Lens, Choice Foundation Executive Director Mickey Landry told staff to “avoid spreading rumor, innuendo, or ‘facts as we know them’” while the investigation was ongoing.

The Lens asked a lawyer to contact Choice Foundation about the matter. In November, Board Secretary Steve Serio responded. He told The Lens that no documents qualified as public records:

Mince did not provide the board with her draft report or any of her notes or materials that she may have produced during her investigation. Verbal communications between Huger and Mince, and between Mince and any other parties involved in the investigation, do not qualify as public records.

In a Monday interview, Huger told The Lens that there had been a report, although he didn’t see it: “Of course there was a report. I never saw the report. I was told about the report. I got briefed.”

Huger said that the board would have released the report if “there was truly something going on.”

Huger said the employee accused of cheating is no longer employed at the school.

This story is published in coopertion with the Internet news site The Lens, http://thelensnola.org