A legislative oversight committee Friday ordered state auditors to review the finances and performances of the state’s charter schools.
State Sen. Ed Murray said recent state investigations launched at Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge and Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans are only the latest issues raised about charter schools.
“There just seems to be more and more of these issues cropping up, not only with finances but with performance as well,” said Murray, D-New Orleans and co-chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council.
A charter allows local groups to establish schools with taxpayer dollars but without the oversight of regularly elected school boards. Instead, the public schools are overseen by boards of directors and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Backers say “charters” offer students a way out of low-performing schools.
Critics contend they have failed to deliver on promises to consistently improve student achievement.
About 35,000 students — roughly 5 percent of the state’s public school enrollment — attend 90 charter schools, mostly in south Louisiana.
Murray said he wanted a report by the council’s next meeting in August.
After the hearing, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said the charter schools already are subject to audits, which are handled by hired accountants following standards set by his office. “What I’ll do is give them a good snapshot of what the audits are saying,” Purpera said.
“We’re obviously investigating one particular charter school operator in Louisiana,” BESE President Penny Dastugue, of Mandeville, said in a prepared statement. She refers to Pelican Educational Foundation, which operates Abramson, the subject of wide-ranging allegations, and Kenilworth, about which no specific claims have been raised.
“We must ensure accountability and transparency in all public schools in our state. But we can’t forget that Louisiana’s charter school program is a national model,” Dastugue said in the statement provided by the state Department of Education.
Gov. Bobby Jindal is generally considered a charter school ally.
Earlier this month he signed a bill — one of his legislative priorities — that will allow the children of company officials half the seats of charter schools they partner with, which backers say can help lure firms to Louisiana.
Donald Songy, associate executive director for the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, praised the audit plans. “They should be accountable to parents, to the taxpayers,” Songy said in an interview after the advisory council’s hearing.
But Nancy Roberts, the head organizer of a new career-oriented charter school, said it is unfortunate that charter schools have gotten so much negative publicity recently.
“You have a few bad actors and they give everybody a bad name,” Roberts said Friday. Her Career Academy opens Aug. 10 at Brookstown Elementary, one of 15 charters in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“The charter school movement is really new, and we have never really had a consistent effort to train people to run charter schools,” Roberts said.
The state Department of Education is checking into allegations that Abramson, which was closed last week, was the site of sexual abuse and other problems. Kenilworth was added to the investigation on Wednesday, officials said, because it is run by the same group — not because of any specific concerns.
The auditor’s office is in the process of setting up meetings with the Pelican Educational Foundation, the company that runs Kenilworth and Abramson, said Joy S. Irwin, assistant legislative auditor and director of Advisory Services Division.
Irwin asked for permission from the Advisory Council to extend the deadlines on audit reports of a handful of charter schools. Irwin testified some of the associations were having trouble getting all the necessary documents from the private companies hired to manage the schools.
Sean Bruno, a New Orleans accountant hired to audit the Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood Association, told the council he was unable to perform his work because the private company hired to manage the school refused to turn over financial documents.
Bruno testified EdisonLearning Inc., which was paid an annual $440,000 fee to manage the Linear Leadership Academy in Shreveport, had entered huge amounts into its ledgers but refused to turn over documentation of the transactions that made up the number.
“The main issue with the process is the lack of availability of financial records for the board,” said Bruno, who as a private accountant is contracted to audit two charter schools and serves as the financial adviser to the board of a third.
Murray said when an association wants to establish its own school using state money, the state requires the group to hire a private operator to hire teachers, set curriculum and otherwise manage the facility. The state provides associations with the list of private contractors. He then asked that representatives from Edison and from the state Department of Education attend the next hearing.
Michael Serpe, spokesman for EdisonLearning Inc., headquartered in New York City, said the company is hired by the local groups wanting to establish a charter school to manage the facility. The boards of the schools carry the fiduciary responsibilities, he said Friday afternoon.
“We don’t control the money. They get all the financials,” Serpe said. “We are just vendors.”
Serpe said the company would officially respond once it hears from the legislative auditor.