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New Orleans Elementary School Run By Dryades YMCA Could Lose Charter Due To Alleged Mismanagement

James M. Singleton Charter School at the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. July 4, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
James M. Singleton Charter School at the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. July 4, 2021.

An elementary school in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood could lose its charter due to alleged mismanagement, district officials said Wednesday.

Board members gathered virtually to discuss the fate of James M. Singleton Charter School run by the Dryades YMCA. The school had an F letter grade from the state before the pandemic and was scheduled to undergo the district’s renewal process this coming school year.

At Wednesday’s emergency board meeting, Thomas Lambert, the district’s chief portfolio officer, laid out the district’s rationale for closing Singleton and said the school faces allegations of both academic and financial mismanagement.

Lambert presented Singleton as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana.

"It is, among all elementary schools in the state, ranked in the bottom 10 of schools in school performance score," Lambert said. "In the last three years, every school that has been closed or transformed has had better school performance."

The district has already secured spots for all 309 of Singleton’s kindergarten through 8th grade students at the FirstLine Live Oak Academy, according to a press release sent late Wednesday afternoon. Live Oak has a D letter grade and is located in the Irish Channel a mile and a half away.

“FirstLine has demonstrated it can provide the necessary supplies and uniforms to accommodate the new students,” the press release said, adding that district schools have also “shown interest” in hiring Singleton’s teachers.

The release goes on to state that “keeping classmates together as much as possible” aligns with the district’s commitment to students’ academic, social and emotional development. At the same time, parents who would like their child to attend another school will be given priority access to available seats during summer enrollment.

The district plans to provide written notice to all Singleton staff and families by July 14 and will conduct “pre-revocation meetings” at the Mahalia Jackson offices no later than July 23.

The Orleans Parish School Board can vote to override the district’s decision at their July 29 board business meeting. If they choose not to, Singleton will close and students will be required to enroll elsewhere.

“I think we need to be clear ... that the intention is to reassign these kids, but it won't be finalized until that time period,” board member John Brown Sr. said. “I don't want to insinuate that there is any sentiment on the board’s behalf to go against the recommendation, but at the same time, we need to be clear because of possible legal challenges.”

District Cites Charter’s Troubling Tenure

Dryades YMCA has had a contract with the Orleans Parish School Board to operate Singleton since July 2018. Since then, Lambert said the charter has received 13 notices of non-compliance, including eight high-level warnings known as “level 2 notices.”

Notices of non-compliance can be issued for a variety of reasons including non-compliance of law, policy or contractual obligation. Instances of non-compliances as well as violations of other district guidelines can put the organization’s charter at risk and result in revocation, Lambert said.

Seven of the 13 notices were issued to Dryades YMCA during the last school year. The charter currently has three outstanding level 2 notices; one for financial mismanagement, another for board governance and a third for failing to perform adequate employee background checks.

Dryades YMCA has also “received numerous notices of non-compliance related to special education over the course of their brief charter term with NOLA-PS,” Lambert said.

Lambert said Dryades YMCA owed Singleton $1,140,781, according to the school’s most recent audit and that the year before, the charter’s operator wrote “multiple times about the potential misappropriation of funds.”

In a letter to Lambert dated June 9, Samuel Odom, the charter’s interim chief executive officer, said he was not in the position to “address the amounts” listed in the level 2 notice until after accounting for the 2020-2021 fiscal school year is completed.

“Until both processes are final, we do not have a response to the NOLA Public Inquiry and when the processes are complete, we will then respond to NOLA Public accordingly,” Odom wrote.

But in a statement sent Wednesday afternoon, the district said the Dryades YMCA had “been given ample opportunities to come to the table … and provide an explanation, evidence, or the requested documents to instill confidence in its capability to run this school.”

“The operator has not availed itself of any of these opportunities, and with the new school year just around the corner, now it is time to act for the sake of these students and their families,” the statement said.

Leadership Changes Complicate Situation

Odom himself is the subject of the charter’s alleged board governance violation. The district argues his appointment as interim CEO violated state ethics laws because he recently served as a board member.

Dryades YMCA is contesting this claim, according to a letter sent from Board Chairperson Barbara Lacen-Keller to Lambert on June 15.

“Our interpretation of the statue referenced in your letter is the avoidance of a paid or compensated position during the two-year period following public service,” Lacen-Keller wrote, adding that Odom is not being paid for his work as CEO.

Odom was appointed after Douglas Evans, the former interim CEO and president, resigned over Singleton’s background check scandal. In October district officials were unable to authenticate checks conducted by the school and later found employees with criminal records had been employed at Singleton.

Catrina Reed, the school’s chief operating officer, stepped down from her position and was arrested on June 1 and booked with 12 counts of injuring public records and one count of theft, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Odom said Dryades YMCA was working to address the district’s concerns and needed more time to review its finances given the recent “leadership transitions,” according to a letter to Lambert dated June 24.

He urged the district not to “jump to conclusions” and argued that because Singleton and Dryades YMCA exist as a single legal entity, any transfer of funds between the two would be justified as long as it was used for the education of students.

“We have yet to validate the sensational and unverified statements referenced in the NOLA Public School notices of alleged noncompliance concerning public funds,” Odom said in the letter.

At the same time, he said that the Dryades YMCA no longer wanted to run Singleton and was exploring options to transfer the school’s charter to another organization and revert to a “historical community organization that doesn’t not operate a school.”

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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