A small charter school in Baton Rouge that got off to a troubled start and continued to face problems with its operations could be forced to close in May.
The state revealed Saturday that it is seeking to revoke the school’s charter less than three years after it opened due to alleged financial and operational mismanagement.
The school, Laurel Oaks Charter School, made the news barely a year after opening when its founder was accused of locking a 5-year-old girl in a closet to discipline her, leading to his arrest. Shafeeq Shamsid-Deen was suspended in September 2017 and quickly replaced.
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However, the school’s problems didn't stop there. There have been allegations of financial mismanagement and a failure to adequately screen teachers and administrators hired to work at the school. The problems have reached the point where the Louisiana Department of Education is recommending that the school’s state-issued charter be revoked.
Laurel Oaks is one of two charter schools the state wants closed; the other is Smothers Academy Preparatory School in Jefferson Parish.
Laurel Oaks is fighting closure.
“We’ve met every guideline, crossed every t, dotted every i; we’re done everything that they have asked of us,” said Jeremy Blunt, chairman of Laurel Oaks’ board of directors.
Both Laurel Oaks and Smothers Academy opened their doors in 2016. If no action is taken, their charters would continue through at least the 2019-20 school year.
The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to consider the recommendations at its April 16 meeting.
If the school follows through and contests that recommendation, that sets the stage for a revocation hearing before BESE, likely in June, which will be conducted by a specially appointed hearing officer.
Blunt said he’s resisted requests that the school voluntarily relinquish its charter, which other charter schools have done in the past when problems have surfaced.
“We’re fighting for our kids,” he said. “We’re fighting for their education."
The last time BESE revoked a charter for a school was in 2011 when it shut down Abramson Science and Technology School in New Orleans.
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Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.
Laurel Oaks, 440 N. Foster Drive, has just 90 students in kindergarten to second grade. Unlike Smothers, which has an academic letter grade of an F, Laurel Oaks has yet to receive a letter grade since none of its students are old enough yet to take the LEAP tests.
In a two-page letter to BESE, state regulators highlighted a number of problems:
- At least seven teachers and administrators worked much of this school year without criminal background checks, including a second-grade teacher who shouldn’t have been teaching due a prior conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
- No proof that 16 more employees, listed as being employed at the school in the past year at various time, had undergone criminal background checks.
- Late payments to multiple vendors and failure to give regulators a list of delinquent bills.
- A total of $185,000 in loans were received from Los Angeles-based Charter Asset Management in two installments, but the board did not approve the loans until after the money had been disbursed; when asked, the school would say only that the money was spent on “general operating expenses.”
- School was late in supplying budgets and other required financial documents to the state.
- Current chief executive officer Stefanie Ashford was paid $3,000 on Sept. 28, three days after she took the job. Minutes of the board’s Oct. 22 meeting list Ashford as still serving as the board president as of that date. That would violate a state rule against charter schools employing board members.
- Joseph Wicker loaned the school $15,000 on Sept. 14 and six days later was named to the board of directors. He was later paid $4,000 in interest on the loan while serving as a board member.
The school has had four board presidents and three school leaders in the current school year.
Blunt, who describes himself as a Christian psychologist who’s worked for years with at-risk youth, joined the board in January and in February became its president. He said the school has made “serious progress” addressing concerns the state raised.
He said all current employees have had background checks and that the charge against the teacher with the prior criminal conviction, which occurred when that person was a teenager, had been expunged.
Blunt said the Oct. 22 minutes mistakenly listed Ashford as on the board and she had resigned before taking over as CEO. As far as late bills, he said the school has paid all but one and is working on that one now.
“At what point are you going to say, 'that was then, let’s focus on the era we’re in,'” Blunt said.
Blunt blamed Shamsid-Deen’s replacement, Rashid Young, saying he did not keep good records.
“We are not disputing some of the questions the state was asking,” Blunt said. “We just don’t have some of the records. When (Young) walked away, he took them with him or he never had them to begin with.”
Reached by phone Saturday, Young said he’d never intended to become the school’s permanent leader. He said he left the school in August to focus on his law school studies at Southern University. He said he’s surprised by the comments made by Blunt, who he's never met.
“If the school needs me to help them in any way, I’m more than happy to do that, but I haven’t heard from anybody,” Young said.
Young also disputed the state’s assertion about Charter Asset Management, saying he recalls the board approving the loan request and that the loan documents were signed by the board’s then-chair and treasurer.
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BESE gave Laurel Oaks a charter in December 2015, one of two charters the state board granted over the objections of East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake. In one of his first actions as superintendent, in June 2016, Drake had urged the rejection of Laurel Oaks’ charter.