IG demands Orleans Parish school district’s financial records

New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is stepping up his fight to get access to financial records from the Orleans Parish School Board, sending interim Superintendent Stan Smith a formal subpoena Tuesday demanding a long list of materials the district has refused to hand over.

Quatrevaux first asked for a meeting with the district to talk about performing an audit late last year, and School Board members have discussed the issue behind closed doors.

But the district has argued Quatrevaux doesn’t have jurisdiction to look at the School Board’s books.

Quatrevaux’s latest maneuver marks an escalation that ultimately could land the two sides in court.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Quatrevaux told Smith the district has 20 days to turn over the records he requested, which include a list of assets, budgets, payroll journals and other materials.

Barring that, Quatrevaux said, the district must either get back to him with specific objections to the request or ask a Civil District Court judge to quash the subpoena.

After that, Quatrevaux has the option of going to a judge himself and asking the district be declared in contempt of court.

In a separate letter Tuesday, also addressed to Smith, Quatrevaux lays out the case for his jurisdiction over the local School Board, which has operated in diminished form alongside the larger, state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Quatrevaux said the city collects tax on the School Board’s behalf, is defined as a “quasi public agency” under state law and is made up of “independently elected parish public officials whose offices receive funds from the municipality.”

Quatrevaux wrote, “These provisions of state law give the effect to the vote of the citizens of New Orleans who demanded oversight of the use of all their tax dollars — including Orleans Parish property tax dollars given to the OPSB.”

Louisiana finances public schools under a complex formula that is even more intricate in New Orleans than elsewhere in the state.

Typically, a district’s local school board levies a property and sales tax, which in Orleans Parish is collected by City Hall and handed over to the board.

The state kicks in a portion as well.

And although the state took over most public schools in the city after Katrina, the state’s Recovery District cannot by law collect its own taxes or sell bonds.

Those decisions are left with the elected board on behalf of both districts, so financial decisions made by board members still draw intense scrutiny across the city.

Smith said the district’s attorneys are reviewing the subpoena, but added the board has already requested an opinion on jurisdiction from the state attorney general.

He said the decision on whether to comply with Quatrevaux’s request will be up to board members.

Board President Ira Thomas said he’ll be waiting for the attorney general’s opinion before asking his fellow board members to act, but added he believes Quatrevaux already has overstepped his bounds.

“My appreciation of the statute is that he does not have jurisdiction because we’re not a municipality or a city,” Thomas said. “We’re a subdivision of the state.”

Quatrevaux also has had a testy relationship with the Recovery District, which inked a contract with the inspector general about a year ago to oversee its portion of the sprawling, $1.8 billion school construction program underway around the city.

In a letter this month, Quatrevaux told state Superintendent John White, who oversees the district as head of the Louisiana Department of Education, he was pulling out of the deal because district officials have resisted handing over required documents and making employees available for interviews.

White denied any interference in a letter responding to Quatrevaux.

He accused the inspector general of making unreasonable demands and exceeding the bounds of their contract.