EBR board member questions motives behind state audit

Lee’s granddaughter triggered scrutiny

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Vereta Lee is breaking her silence about her granddaughter being the student who sparked a controversial audit of high school graduates all over Baton Rouge.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Lee said Saturday, suggesting she’s being made a target because of her opposition to turning public education over to private interests. “This child has done nothing wrong.”

The state audit found, among other things, that some students earned grades or credits that differed from those the school system later reported to the state, suggesting possible wrongdoing by school administrators, human error or both.

The audit, which was released March 16, also examines in depth the issues surrounding one Glen Oaks High student who graduated in May 2013. The state questioned how that student, Lee’s granddaughter, was allowed to walk with her graduating classmates and what happened after that.

The state released documents generated during the audit on Friday in response to a public records request. The records include notes from interviews of 17 school system employees. Most of their questions focused on the case of a particular student who graduated from Glen Oaks High.

The girl’s connection to Lee, however, is never mentioned in any of the documents. Some news reports have quoted sources as saying an unnamed school board member was involved in the case of the student highlighted in the audit, and Lee has been identified on some websites as the board member involved.

Lee said she’s had enough.

“We need to put this to rest once and for all,” she said, adamantly denying ever using her power to ensure her granddaughter’s graduation.

“They wanted to make it look like I used my position as an elected official to have someone do something for me,” Lee said.

Lee, who has represented District 2 since 2007, is a controversial and outspoken figure in her own right.

She closely scrutinizes changes in personnel and student discipline matters — her critics would argue she micromanages — and aggressively lobbies for improvements for schools in her north Baton Rouge district. She is harshly critical of business and state education leaders; the Baton Rouge Area Chamber tried unsuccessfully to unseat her in 2010.

Lee also regularly travels to professional conferences, more than her colleagues, and loudly criticizes any efforts to rein in School Board travel.

Lee said she thinks she’s being targeted by those who want to turn public education over to private interests.

“This is all about getting the money that’s coming through these schools to educate children, and anybody who questions that gets quieted,” she said.

Lee said she knew nothing about the graduation controversy until Jan. 9, when she said she came home from work to find a reporter from a local television station at her north Baton Rouge house asking her about her granddaughter.

The state Department of Education had announced earlier that day that it was conducting an audit because it had received “detailed complaints of discrepancies among student graduation records.”

State Superintendent John White, however, made it clear he was most concerned about the problems of one student in particular.

School system officials downplayed the matter. They said the student White was referring to had graduated from high school but it was later determined that the student lacked one course credit and that the student was making up the credit via what’s known as a “dual enrollment course.”

Lee, however, said that was news to her granddaughter. Neither she nor her family had been notified before then about a problem or that the granddaughter still needed to take a course.

“Why didn’t they contact the mother and the child back in September?” Lee asked.

Late September is when the problem was discovered by a member of the Glen Oaks High staff. Apparently, one of the girl’s one-credit elective courses was counted twice, leaving her a credit short.

Lee said the family had kept records showing the girl had two other for-credit courses that had been taken online via the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company Edgenuity, which was enough to make up for the newly missing credit.

“If they could have fixed this at the time, all this never would have happened,” she said.

What happened instead is a source of controversy, with the state and the school system releasing conflicting accounts.

The school system claimed it reported the matter to the state in fall 2013 by updating a state transcript database; the state argued the school system failed to take any “documentable action” prior to the state announcing the audit in January.

The school system said at first they didn’t want to penalize the student by rescinding her diploma over an error made by staff. The state countered that her diploma should have been rescinded right away, apparently the past practice of the school system. Her diploma ultimately was rescinded.

The state passed along the audit’s findings to the state Inspector General’s and Legislative Auditor’s offices. On Friday, the school system submitted a lengthy corrective action plan meant to prevent similar problems from happening in the future.

Meanwhile, the auditing firm of Postlethwaite & Netterville is in the middle of yet another, even more extensive, audit of graduation records.

Lee said no investigator has contacted her at any point seeking to interview her on the matter.

She said school officials belatedly looked in mid-January at records her granddaughter had kept. But rather than accept the courses that would have made up for the missing credit, Lee said, they insisted that the girl take yet another course online. She said her granddaughter is doing so, even as she continues pursuing her studies at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Lee said she has 13 grandchildren, including seven who are currently attending public schools in Baton Rouge. She said they not only do not get special favors but adults don’t want to deal with them at all once they learn they are related to her.

She said the ordeal has been dispiriting for her granddaughter, who had to overcome a lot of problems to finally walk across the stage last May 14.

“This kid had dropped out of school three times,” Lee said. “I told her, ‘This is unacceptable. People in this family finish school.’ ”

“I think it’s wrong to take that from child,” Lee added.