Smothers Academy

Smothers Academy Preparatory School

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Education are recommending the closure of Smothers Academy Preparatory School, an F-rated charter school in Jefferson Parish, amid allegations of financial mismanagement and a failure to properly serve disabled students.

In a recommendation attached to an agenda item for a meeting this month of the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Education Department outlined a series of concerns about the 463-student charter school on Jefferson Highway. It accepts kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

[RELATED: State suggests closing troubled Laurel Oaks Charter School in Baton Rouge due to mismanagement]

The state said Saturday that the school failed to provide proper special education services to the roughly 40 percent of enrolled students with disabilities. It also alleged that the charter organization's CEO, Damon Smothers, received an unauthorized advance from the school of $20,000, and that officials used credit cards for personal expenses, among other issues.

The state said it had already warned the school that it was violating the law in October 2017 by indicating on the school website that it took only male students, and that Damon Smothers had violated nepotism laws by employing an immediate family member.

"Smothers Academy has a pattern of prior violations of law and policy," the department said.

In an interview, Damon Smothers called the academy "a great school" and said it had worked through "90 percent of the issues" that had been flagged by the state.

He denied taking money improperly and said other issues involving low grades and audits had been addressed with a change in leadership at the board.

"All we’re asking for is time to fix things," Smothers said. "There's nothing that has been done that can’t be fixed."

The board president, Sean Randall, reiterated that school officials were "continually working on strengthening all aspects of the school," and added that the board had not been notified of all of the allegations made by the Department of Education before they went public.

The department recommended that BESE close the school before the start of the next school year, revoking its charter a year before it expires.

BESE will vote this month on whether to start revocation proceedings. If it does, the school will have an opportunity for a hearing, and the board will vote on whether to close the school in June.

The state's action marks the first time since 2011 it has recommended revoking a school's charter before it is up for renewal.

Smothers Academy received its charter in 2016 from the state, after failing to receive charters from the Orleans Parish School Board in 2013 and the Jefferson Parish School Board in 2015. 

It is one of 43 Type 2 charter schools in Louisiana, which means that the school is authorized by the state, rather than by a local district. Such charters, which include the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts and the International School of Louisiana in New Orleans, tend to have some kind of specialty, such as language immersion or an arts focus, and are open to students from other parishes.

Smothers Academy's website says the school offers an integrated curriculum that focuses on science, math, arts and sports and that Damon Smothers, its CEO, wants to break the "school to prison pipeline" and to "rewrite the narrative with regard to male students and in particular, boys of color."

"We must maintain high behavioral and academic expectations of our sons in order to break the cycle of poverty, criminal behavior, mass incarceration and premature death," the website says.

The marketing specifically toward male students was one of several issues raised in the Education Department letter. State officials said it had been rectified by April.

Many of the state's allegations were unearthed in a 2017-18 audit completed by Luther Speight & Company, a local accounting firm.

The auditors said the school made an unauthorized $20,000 advance to its CEO without board approval. The credit card expenses, the audit said, "were not supported by receipts and appeared to include personal expenditures and alcohol purchases."

The audit also found that school officials failed to find a firm to "engage in proper construction management services" when buying modular units for the campus, and that the former board president alleged the school failed to make health and supplemental insurance payments on time, causing a two-month lapse in coverage for employees.

Finally, the state said, Smothers Academy violated open meetings laws and other rules by failing to list agenda items for board meetings, failing to provide meeting minutes to the public and operating with five board members "for an undetermined amount of time," when the law requires seven.

Activist and education blogger Peter Cook had published an article last year saying that his review of documents from Smothers Academy "raises serious questions about its management practices."

At the time, Smothers Academy was applying for another charter with Orleans Parish, asking to run McDonogh 35 as a long-term manager.

Cook raised issues not included in the state's summary released Saturday, including the school's use of corporal punishment. A student handbook posted on the school's website says administrators use a wooden paddle for discipline unless parents opt out of the punishment.

Cook also alleged the potential violation of state ethics law over nepotism and a "troubling" 2016-17 audit that indicated that the school couldn't account for $33,480 missing from its bank account.

In a follow-up article, Cook revealed that Damon Smothers had been accused of financial impropriety by his brother, Kemic Smothers, the family member who had been fired after the state accused the school of violating nepotism laws.

A petition filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July showed Kemic Smothers sued his brother, along with Smothers Academy, the board of directors and CFO Mark DeBose, for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge and fraud, after saying Damon Smothers had “gifted himself” $20,000 from the school’s bank account.

Damon Smothers, however, told The New Orleans Advocate that while he did request an advance on his paycheck, it was simply a loan, and that his brother was trying to retaliate against the school for being let go without pay after failing to clear his employment with the state ethics board.

"Kemic Smothers was intent on impairing the school just to get back at me for a situation he could have avoided by simply contacting the ethics board," Smothers said. 

In terms of other allegations, he said that the school is "not perfect" but is "better than most." 

"Smothers Academy is educating the most discriminated and neglected population of students in America and we believe they need a chance," he said. "We have been, and we will fight this."


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.