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Lycée board shuts press out of meeting with parents

Board members at the embattled Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans Charter School Monday closed the doors to “anybody who is not connected with the family” of the school as they met for two hours with parents in what they insisted was not a public meeting.

The closed-door session involving three board members and about 30 parents followed a 45-minute, open meeting during which board members voted 6-0, with little discussion, to approve hiring Gisele Schexnider as interim CEO and academic director for the troubled school. One board member was absent.

Board president Jean Montes said last week he’d already hired Schexnider on Nov. 30 without board approval; during Monday’s meeting, he described the vote as simply “ratification” of that decision.

Before he called that meeting to order, however, Montes told the audience of about 50 that there would be a second “closed meeting” for “parents, teachers, and those directly affiliated with the school to remain for a question, comments and answer session.”

After adjourning the public meeting, Montes told those gathered that “a couple board members and some staff” would remain to take questions. He asked that “anybody who is not connected with the family of LFNO to give us some privacy so we can talk about any questions you might have at this time.”

Reporters for The Lens and Uptown Messenger left the the building. But 20 minutes later, both reporters re-entered the meeting to object. The Lens reporter asked board members to state what legal basis they had to meet privately.

The state public meetings law says that it “shall be construed liberally” because operating in public “is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society.”

And according to a 2009 Louisiana Attorney General’s opinion cited by The Lens, lack of a quorum is not enough to exclude a public body from being subject to the state’s open meeting laws. If a portion of the board is acting in an advisory capacity for the board as a whole, it must notice its meetings and comply with open government laws.

“The fact that a committee cannot make a final decision on a matter does not remove meetings of that committee from the ambit of open meetings requirements,” the opinion states.

Board member Joel Vilmenay responded to The Lens’ objection by providing a list of exemptions to the state open meetings law from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press website.

He later said he had mistakenly provided those exemptions and had meant to provide another piece of paper, which he then handed over, with the definition of a quorum under state law. Because a quorum of the board was not present during the Q&A session, Vilmenay said, the gathering was not subject to open meetings law.

Vilmenay asked reporters leave the building and not come back. He said he would speak with them after the meeting if they desired.

Some parents spoke up and asked The Lens to leave.

“Let her finish talking,” another said.

NOLA.com reporter Danielle Dreilinger appeared to have stayed in the building as she reported afterward that parents expressed concern over security — something that was not discussed in public portion of the meeting.

During the formal board meeting, only one person objected to Schexnider’s appointment.

She replaces school director and CEO Jean-Jacques Grandiere, who resigned Nov. 23.

Larisa Diephuis, who said she works in human resources for The New Teacher Project, told the board she doesn’t understand how Schexnider could be hired without the board first holding a public meeting.

“Given that this is an extremely important position for the school it is extremely disturbing to me that the position was never posted,” Diephuis said.

Board member Catherine MacPhaille responded by describing Schexnider as “eminently qualified for the position of academic director.”

“I’m ready to work with everybody to make sure that this school heads in a straight line to the future it deserves,” Schexnider said before asking if she should outline her background.

Montes told her stopped her from doing so, saying it would be discussed later.

In only its second year of operation, Lycée Français has endured the resignations of two school leaders. Just two of its original nine members remain on the board. Last month, the board voted to cut $200,000 from its budget after learning of a $85,000 deficit.

Despite the concerns, the school has more than doubled in size since its founding, with about 340 students now enrolled.

Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Virginia nonprofit that specializes in open government issues, said the board’s actions raise a number of potential issues including questions of equal access and discrimination as they admitted some and excluded others.

“Technically it may not have been a violation of the open meetings law,” Caramanica said, “but it violates the spirit of the law.”

Questioned after the meeting about the impact of closing the session — and news of the private session — to parents who were unable to attend, Montes and Vilmenay appeared unworried.

“They are invited to come next time,” Montes said.

The board will meet again on Jan. 7; Vilmaney said the board is inclined to hold another closed session following the public meeting.

Click here to hear audio of Lens reporter Marta Jewson objecting to the private meeting 20 minutes after board members closed the doors: lycee12102012.

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