NEW ORLEANS — A charter school that’s been at the center of several controversies over the past year is now facing new concerns in its annual audit.
New Beginnings Schools Foundation admitted multiple students to its public charters schools without properly documenting that they lived in the city of New Orleans, as required by their charters, according to an audit filed with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
This issue of student residency, along with several financial problems, were identified by auditors at Carr, Riggs & Ingram and first reported by The Lens.
New Beginnings is the charter organization that runs John F. Kennedy High School and Pierre Capdau, and also ran Medard Nelson until it closed after last school year. New Beginnings got in so much trouble last year that the Orleans Parish School Board is taking away the remaining charters for Kennedy and Capdau at the end of the year.
First, came a grade-fixing scandal exposed by a fired whistleblower. Then WWL-TV discovered New Beginnings’ then-CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams changing public records to make it look like the charter organization’s board had approved a million-dollar school bus contract.
Then came a scandal that rocked Kennedy High and led to a summer of lawsuits: Half the 2019 graduating class at Kennedy found out after walking in the graduation ceremonies that the school had given them the wrong coursework or hadn’t administered classes properly and they didn't really graduate.
With this week’s audit, New Beginnings ran a $1 million deficit in 2018-19 and understated its expenses by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The auditors also checked a sample of 20 credit card transactions by staff and found more than half of them, 11, did not include required receipts to show what was purchased.
The charter organization’s new CEO, Kevin George, told the auditors that staff turnover was to blame for the financial irregularities. On the issue of students enrolled without proper proof of residency in Orleans Parish, George said the school receives students from the city’s centralized OneApp admissions system, but would call on parents to produce proof of city residency, such as a lease, homeowner documents or utility bills.
The audit said the school could be forced to repay public funds because of the error, but NOLA Public Schools, which authorized New Beginnings charters, said no funding was put at risk.
NOLA Public Schools issued a statement saying it checks residency requirements through the OneApp process, but depends on individual charter organizations to verify residency when children enroll.
“OneApp asks applicants to list their current address, and if the address is not in New Orleans, then asks them to indicate if they will be moving to New Orleans,” NOLA-PS said. “If neither of those two cases apply, the family will only see Scholarship schools and Type 2 charters. NOLA Public Schools expects that schools verify residency as a condition of enrollment. Students who are found to live in another parish may be issued an official notice of ineligibility to attend by their school.”
Although New Beginnings forfeits their charters at the end of this school year, board president Raphael Gang said the organization has taken the audit findings to heart and has already fixed the issues identified.
“We welcome the audit findings and have worked closely with our new auditors from the beginning,” Gang said. “In our very first meeting, we requested that our auditors take an extremely thorough look at our organization and let us know about any deficiencies they found in real time so that we could correct them as quickly as possible. We are proud to say that at this point all of the issues raised in the audit have been addressed. We are grateful for the work our new leadership team has done to ensure that our families have an excellent final year as part of the New Beginnings School Foundation.”