A New Beginnings School Foundation human resources committee meeting ended abruptly Thursday night when employee Patricia Ventura requested any discussion of her employment be held in public.
As the committee moved to go into executive session regarding personnel, a Lens reporter asked whether or not the person who was to be the subject of discussion wanted the committee’s conversation to be held in an open or closed meeting.
“Closed,” said board member April Bedford.
“Open session,” Ventura said, as she sat at the end of a conference table filled with board members.
The meeting then screeched to a halt. Committee members quietly talked among themselves for a few seconds and then suddenly voted to adjourn the meeting.
Ventura was hired by New Beginnings CEO Sametta Brown in December as the executive director of support services. She was charged with turning around the network’s lagging special education services. And many came to testify Thursday that she has been doing just that.
This committee meeting, unlike most, was packed with about 25 teachers, parents and other network staff. They lined the room, standing when chairs ran out.
Some came in support of Ventura; others wanted to voice concerns about principal turnover at network schools.
New Beginnings operates four charter schools: Gentilly Terrace, Pierre Capdau, Medard Nelson and Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. Three network principals resigned in the course of this past school year.
“I’m here to support Patricia Ventura,” said Elora Turner, a special education teacher at Medard Nelson who lauded her work over the last five months.
“Patricia Ventura’s name is legendary in terms of providing student first special needs services,” said Turner.
Gentilly Terrace teacher Emily Nelson stood before the board, tears in her eyes, and asked point-blank: “Are you considering a dismissal of Patricia Ventura? Because I believe that would be a huge loss to your network.”
“Are you going to directly answer the question?” Nelson asked when no one responded.
“No,” said Ryan.
Teachers also spoke out about principal turnover and communication between the board and public. Board members agreed that they could better alert the community to public meetings and would post notices at each school in the future.
“We are not here to run the day-to-day of the network,” said board member Carla Major, explaining the board’s role and encouraging the public to attend more board meetings.
Margaret Lang, who used to work in special education services for the Recovery School District, said she recently came out of retirement to work for New Beginnings.
“To think that somebody may have complained about a quirky personality or that they didn’t like somebody because they are being held accountable,” said Lang. “It is beyond me that you would take any kind of action against a person who has come in and done nothing but put things in place.”
Lang raved about Ventura’s work and then asked the board: “Are you about kids or are you about personalities?”
She was the last member of the public to comment. The meeting’s agenda included an item called “discussion of principal searches and other personnel action,” but did not list an executive session.
When the committee initially attempted to move into executive session, The Lens asked which exception to the open meetings law was being cited.
“I don’t know the legal language,” said board chair Tim Ryan. “To discuss the professional competence of an employee.”
Louisiana law does allow for a closed-door session for “discussion of the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person.” But the person must be notified 24 hours in advance and can ask for the discussion to be held in public.
“We as a board are not comfortable discussing a person’s competence in front of a whole room full of people,” Bedford said after the meeting. She said the executive session was not listed on the agenda because the committee had not planned one in advance.
Major said she wanted to clarify with Ventura before holding an open session: “What did she really mean by public?”
As the teachers and parents left the room, board members remained with the doors open for an additional 30 minutes with Brown and Ventura. It is unclear what was discussed.
Members Carla Major, Tim Ryan, April Bedford and Jill Sylvain were present for the hour long meeting. Member Mark Boucree arrived half an hour after the meeting adjourned and joined the conference room session for a few minutes before members left the building.
After the meeting Ventura had no comment.