A senior Minneapolis School District administrator received more than $26,000 from an after-school program she introduced, raising questions about a conflict of interest.
Lucilla Davila co-founded the Windom Enrichment Resource Center (WERC) to provide after-school classes in 2011, when she was the principal of Windom Elementary School.
A few years later Davila became an associate superintendent overseeing the district's magnet schools, and the program has expanded to schools in her portfolio, including Sheridan and Emerson schools.
Last year, the Minneapolis school board approved a $150,000 contract with the organization, but board finance chairwoman Rebecca Gagnon said the board was not aware of Davila's current or previous relationship with the organization.
Gagnon said all district employees are bound by the district's conflict-of-interest policy, and "there are clearly conflicts of interests here."
Davila said she is no longer a board member of the organization, though she occasionally works as an adviser. She said she told former interim superintendent Michael Goar she left the board when she was promoted to associate superintendent.
Michael Thomas, the district's current interim superintendent, said the matter is being investigated and the district is reviewing its conflict-of-interest policies and practices.
"Our expectation is that employees maintain the highest standards of ethics both professionally and privately," Thomas said. "If a conflict of interest arises, we trust staff to act in good faith and openly address any concerns."
Parents at Whittier, which also is under Davila's supervision, began raising questions when they heard the school was considering the WERC program and assumed that meant the cancellation of their current after-school program, run by a popular employee. Some parents were outraged to learn that Davila, who oversees Whittier, was listed as a board member on WERC's website at the time.
The website was out of date, said Davila and WERC director Blanca Raniolo.
"It has come to my attention that there may be some misunderstanding around my formal role with the WERC program," Davila said in a letter to Goar.
Davila said in an interview that she stepped down as a board member when she became an associate superintendent in May 2012. However, Davila said she is still an adviser. "I do not have any affiliation as a board member or as someone who benefits from that organization."
Asked in May whether she ever received compensation from WERC, either in her time as a principal or as an associate superintendent, Davila said no. "I was just a board member," she said. But according to the organization's tax filings, Davila received $15,600 in compensation from WERC in 2013 and $11,000 in 2014, when she was listed as the organization's president. The organization reported that Davila devoted about 80 hours per week as a board member of WERC in 2013.
When asked about the compensation listed in the tax forms, Davila declined to comment.
Gary Amoroso, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said it is unusual for a principal or associate superintendent to be compensated from a program run out of the school that they oversee.
"Can something like this be questioned? Absolutely," Amoroso said. "Anytime someone is utilizing public funds, if there are questions of conflict of interest, [officials] want to make sure there is nothing there."
Started in 2011, then grew
In 2011 Davila and Raniolo co-founded WERC at Windom. Davila said students did not have access to an after-school enrichment program that could incorporate various cultures and activities. The program offers sports, cultural cooking classes, dance and music classes to students.
It's not free. Parents can pay $150 to $216 per semester for individual classes or up to $6 per hour for an after-school program that runs until 6 p.m.
The program grew into a nonprofit in 2012, according to Davila and tax filings.
"It became bigger than Windom. [Raniolo] took it as a small organization and has developed it," Davila said.
This school year WERC programs were offered at four Minneapolis district schools: Windom, Emerson, Sheridan and Kenny. Three of those are in Davila's portfolio. Davila said the organization also works with a private school and a charter school in Minneapolis.
In 2012, the organization collected $86,000 in revenue. It reported more than $300,000 in revenue in its 2015 filing. The 2015 tax filings include a request to remove Davila as a member of WERC and lists no compensation for her or any other employee.
In 2013, Davila was a full-time principal of Windom, earning about $105,000. She became an associate superintendent in May 2014, overseeing instruction at the district's 12 magnet schools.
Davila said she left the WERC board after she became the associate superintendent.
Still, Davila said she sometimes consults the organization as an adviser, but only when her work "does not tie to Minneapolis Public Schools, then I might get a commission or percentile of something, but anything that is tied to Minneapolis, I do not benefit in any way."
For example, she said the organization is working to secure some grant money.
"I am helping them draft some of that language," Davila said "That's why I advise and support, but beyond that I don't do anything else."
Last year the Minneapolis school board approved a contract with WERC for $150,000 to enroll 90 to 100 students into the program.
Gagnon said the board was not informed of Davila's current relationship as an adviser or her previous connections with the organization.
"If you are in any way getting money from an organization, and we need to approve a contract, then we should know," Gagnon said.