Harney charter school

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy

The former principal of Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy said she was illegally fired after raising questions about alleged financial mismanagement at the embattled charter school, according to legal filings.

In an injunction filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court last week, Ashonta Wyatt, who was fired as principal of the school earlier this month, also asked a judge to restrict members of the school's governing board from the school grounds and from access to the school's bank accounts.

Wyatt said in the filing that she was fired after she raised questions about checks she said were issued by the board to non-school employees from the school's accounts.

"Ms. Wyatt's termination has caused her great irreparable harm but not just her; the students, faculty and staff, parents and community that surround Edgar P. Harney school are suffering from the injuries caused by the Board," the injunction says.

Wyatt filed a preliminary injunction that would have immediately barred the board from transferring money. 

Civil District Judge Paulette R. Irons denied the request for immediate action but scheduled a hearing for Wednesday so lawyers for Wyatt and the school board could argue their cases.

The Rev. Charles P. Southall, who heads the Spirit of Excellence Board, did not return multiple requests for comment, nor did individual board members.

However, the charter school board's lawyer, Kenya Rounds, has previously denied some of Wyatt's claims, according to an article written in The Lens.

The legal squabble follows a decision by Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. to revoke Harney's charter in the middle of the current school year, a process that could be finished by January.

Amanda Aiken, the district's senior chief and portfolio officer, outlined numerous "organizational" concerns OPSB had about Harney's charter board during a committee meeting of the school board earlier this month.

Those concerns included delayed payments for teacher and staff retirement accounts, as well as the use of personal and church addresses — instead of the school building’s address — for a key banking account.

A state investigation also found nearly all students with disabilities weren't getting adequate services.

“We are highly concerned at this time about the leadership and the stability at the school,” Aiken said at the meeting.

In her legal filing last week, Wyatt said she began to see problems with the school's management shortly after she was hired as the school's new leader in August.

She "noticed checks made out to individuals who were not employed at the school," the filing states, and when she called Southall to ask about the checks, he "began to question" her leadership capabilities.

Problems continued, she said, when Wyatt learned of the school's $255,000 budget deficit and she started asking for donations of books and other supplies.

In September, she appealed to donors in a social media post, and attorney Juan LaFonta responded, implying he was willing to help, according to the filing.

When she sent him a private message, he then created a public social media post saying that it was "improper" for her to solicit those funds.

More than a month later, he drafted a letter to the charter school board alleging defamation and libel as a result of the exchange, according to legal filings.

The board scheduled "an emergency meeting" on Nov. 2 to discuss the claim. But according to Wyatt, that meeting was held in violation of open-meetings laws because Wyatt had asked the board to hold the meeting in public, according to the legal filing.

Louisiana law says that the subject of an executive session is allowed to decide whether the meeting should be opened to the public.

Wyatt was suspended on Nov. 5 and fired on Nov. 16 in another meeting that she said also violated open meetings law. At that meeting, an OPSB employee intervened on her behalf.

Kenya Rounds, the board's attorney, has disputed that account, according to The Lens. Rounds said the charter organization made the meeting public as soon as Wyatt asked.

The issue with LaFonta has since become moot. His attorney said Monday that LaFonta has not taken any legal action and has no intention of pursuing the defamation case further.

Regardless of Iron's findings on Wednesday, legal problems could persist for Harney's board.

Earlier this month, Lewis said the OPSB had referred complaints to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

District attorney spokesman Ken Daley acknowledged that they received a letter from OPSB but said the office would be unable to act until the auditor's office finishes its investigation.

"We won't really know what we're looking at until they finish their work," Daley said.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.