‘Swamp BESE’ group questions Lafayette charter application

A Lafayette Parish parent organization fighting two pending charter school applications is questioning why one charter school failed to disclose management problems raised in audits of two schools it operates in New York.

The New York State Comptroller Office’s audits of Buffalo United School and Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, both managed by National Heritage Academies, reveal a lease payment of $800,000 over fair market value at one school and call for better oversight of public funds.

The issues should have been disclosed by National Heritage Academies as material audit findings in its charter school application to the Louisiana Department of Education, said Ann Burruss, a Lafayette Parish parent.

Burruss is a founding member of Swamp BESE, a group rallying parents to oppose the charter school applications at upcoming Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings.

“Clearly, such facts, if disclosed as required in the application process, would affect the judgment of state and local school board members. We seek better applicant review. We want an open, predictable, transparent process so the public has confidence in the integrity of its government,” Burruss said in a news release.

An audit of the Buffalo United Charter School’s relationship with National Heritage Academies from July 2010 to June 2012 was critical of the School Board’s fiscal oversight of NHA and for NHA’s failure to disclose detailed information on some costs.

An audit of another NHA-managed school — Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School — questioned why its board of trustees paid $800,000 above fair market value on its NHA lease for its school building.

The audit also said the school’s board could not verify how $10 million it received in public funding benefited students.

Board representatives from both schools defended their operations.

“NHA complied fully with the state comptroller’s audits of two of our partner schools — and those audits reported no material findings,” said Megan DeKraker, NHA director of new charter school development, in an email Friday.

In New York, school charters can be revoked and schools closed for weak financial performance, DeKraker said.

“This has never happened to an NHA school, in New York or anywhere else,” she said.

The Louisiana Department of Education’s request for applications requires charter school operators to provide certain information related to past school performance, including any litigation or material audit findings related to any of its schools.

On Tuesday, a BESE committee will consider an application from Louisiana Achievement Charter Academies made in partnership with NHA to open two schools in Lafayette Parish.

It also will consider a separate application from Lafayette Charter Foundation, in partnership with Charter Schools USA, to open three schools in the parish.

The full BESE board will make a final decision on the applications Wednesday.

“(The NHA) application contained all documentation the charter operator was required to disclose,” said Barry Landry, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Education.

“The issues raised in these audits are not classified as material findings using industry terms. The audit reports in question reflected old, previously-resolved, isolated incidences and were never material findings and therefore were not required to be reported.”

Burruss and fellow Swamp BESE founder Kathleen Espinoza have championed a more-transparent charter school review process and previously questioned whether the proper timeline has been followed in deliberations about the two Lafayette Parish applications.

A review of the timeline issue is underway by the Lafayette Parish School Board’s attorney.

“Doesn’t this whole process of applications and disclosure exist so the parish, people and board members get to make a decision on what is material?” Burruss said Friday.

Though she and other parents involved with Swamp BESE oppose applications from both charter school operators, Burruss credited Charter Schools USA for disclosing it was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit claiming it was negligent for an alleged student-on-student sexual assault.

The charter operator’s Miami-Dade County partner school and a bus service are also named as defendants.

The plaintiffs are seeking no less than $5 million in damages, which, if awarded, could seriously affect the school’s ability to provide management services, according to its charter school application.

“That’s how it should work,” Burruss said of Charter School USA’s disclosure. “Disclose, explain, and all is well.”