NEW ORLEANS — Embattled school bus vendor Scholars First brought children to and from nine New Orleans charter schools as scheduled Wednesday, the day after the Louisiana Insurance Department ruled the company had been using fraudulent insurance documents.
Five New Orleans charter management organizations – Einstein Charter, Foundation Prep, New Beginnings, Rooted School and Success Prep – use Scholars First as primary bus vendor at nine schools. All five assured the Orleans Parish School Board that they have verified active insurance policies for Scholars First’s buses, the school district told WWL-TV.
“At this time, all schools serviced by Scholars First have confirmed to OPSB that they have verified with the insurance policy holders and have determined that the insurance is accurate and valid,” OPSB spokeswoman Ambria Washington said.
“As the authorizers of schools, OPSB can place schools in non-compliance if we determine that they are knowingly or negligently allowing bus companies to transport children on buses without valid insurance.”
Responding to the explosive findings in an exclusive WWL-TV investigation two weeks ago, state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon issued emergency cease and desist orders Tuesday evening to Scholars First, its owners Melvin Williams and Jeramy Jackson, and to a part-time bus company employee who was falsely listed on the insurance certificates as an insurance agent.
Asked to comment on the orders Tuesday, Scholars First’s attorney Randy McKee thanked WWL-TV for the information and gave no further statement.
Donelon said he has passed his findings on to criminal investigators from the State Insurance Fraud Task Force. WWL Legal Analyst Chick Foret said falsifying insurance certificates is forgery, a state felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Scholars First issued the insurance certificates cited as fraudulent to New Beginnings, Einstein Charter Schools and Success Prep. That affected seven of the nine schools served by Scholars First: New Beginnings’ Kennedy High, Pierre Capdau and Medard Nelson; Einstein Charter’s Einstein High, Einstein Charter Sherwood Forest and Einstein Charter Village L’Est; and Success Prep’s single school, Success Prep Academy at Thurgood Marshall.
The fraudulent certificates showed Scholars First with three different current insurance policies from Mesa Underwriters Specialty Insurance Co. of Arizona, but Mesa told WWL-TV they were all invalid.
Success Prep provided WWL-TV with one of those fraudulent certificates in response to a public records request in January, but later told the station it had received a new insurance certificate from Scholars First dated in December that showed an active policy with Prime Insurance Co., rather than Mesa. The new certificate showed the policy was sold by an insurance agent named Michael L. Simon Jr.
WWL-TV confirmed with the state Insurance Department on Wednesday that Simon is currently licensed in Louisiana and so is Prime Insurance Co. Simon did not respond to a message seeking comment.
According to state records, Simon is based in New York, but keeps an office on the 25th floor of the Place St. Charles building in downtown New Orleans. Scholars First used to have an office on the same floor of that building.
New Beginnings and Einstein Charter have yet to provide WWL-TV with new insurance certificates.
New Beginnings’ CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams told WWL-TV last month that she would look into the station’s allegation that Scholars First was using falsified insurance documents, but she was suspended Monday based on separate allegations raised by WWL-TV that she had falsified public records to justify the contract she signed in 2017 with Scholars First.
Einstein Charter Schools’ CEO Michael McKenzie told WWL-TV last month that he was concerned by the station’s findings about Scholars First’s insurance and he was looking into replacing Scholars First. Shortly after that, an 11-year-old boy was left sleeping on a Scholars First bus when it the driver locked it in a lot in the 7th Ward.
That lot is zoned for residential use. Scholars First’s attorney, McKee, told WWL-TV two months ago that Scholars First was looking for a new lot, but its buses were still parked at the unpermitted lot in the 7th Ward as of Wednesday evening.