New Orleans charter school group broke law on retirement plans, audit says _lowres

Kevin Guitterrez, President & Chief Operating Officer for ReNew Schools

One of the biggest charter school groups in New Orleans may have run afoul of state law by allowing ineligible teachers to participate in Louisiana’s teacher retirement system and failing to enroll others who were required to participate, according to a state audit released Monday.

When new charter schools open, they have to choose whether to participate in the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana. Any school that opts in, spelling out its participation in a contract with the state, must enroll all of its teachers, not just those who elect to join. Schools that opt out cannot have any teachers in the system.

A group called ReNew Schools, which runs six different campuses, apparently got around that requirement by simply listing all teachers who wanted to stick with TRSL, regardless of their school, on the payroll at Reed Elementary, the only school it operates that has opted into the system. Meanwhile, teachers at Reed who decided to forgo participating in TRSL went on the official payroll at one of ReNew’s five other schools.

In an interview, ReNew President Kevin Guitterrez said, “We did have some gray areas we used in order to do that,” adding that state auditors have made it clear the group will “need to be more black and white about things.”

That ReNew would risk breaking the law in this case highlights a tension between TRSL and charter schools that has been causing problems for years. The cost for schools of keeping teachers in TRSL has been climbing steeply, leading many charters to opt out of the system.

But that makes it harder for those schools to hire veteran teachers — many of whom have been contributing to TRSL for decades — rather than green recruits. If a school opts out to begin with, none of its teachers can participate, even if they were already enrolled.

In fact, the state Legislature in 2012 passed a bill that would allow teachers already enrolled in TRSL to continue making contributions, even if they go to work for a charter school that has opted out, but state officials are waiting for clearance from the IRS before implementing that policy change.

“Once that gets straightened out, it will allow the flexibility needed for everybody,” Guitterrez said.

In the meantime, he said, ReNew has begun talking with officials at TRSL about how to bring the organization into compliance with the law as it stands. The audit says 21 teachers who were not eligible for TRSL were enrolled anyway, and 41 teachers who should have been enrolled were not.

Ultimately, ReNew may have to shift teachers from the schools where they teach to the school where they are officially listed on the payroll. Guitterrez said the group would be open to doing that, but it will try to negotiate an arrangement in which teachers’ retirement contributions from past years would not be affected.