Mildred Labostrie stormed out of a New Beginnings Schools Foundation board meeting in early June — when the chair of the board that governs her granddaughter’s school told her she had missed her opportunity to offer public comment.
But New Beginnings’ blatant disregard for state open meetings law didn’t go unnoticed that night, and the network received a “formal notice of concern” from the state Department of Education.
At that packed board meeting June 6, no members of the audience offered public comment when board chair Tim Ryan asked for it at the beginning of the meeting. Little did they know that would be their one opportunity to communicate their thoughts and opinions.
That was the only time Ryan asked for public comment, even though state law requires that the public be allowed to comment before each action item — and the board took several votes that night.
Parents and teachers grew visibly frustrated at times as Ryan plowed through the meeting. At one point, Labostrie spoke up after Ryan asked if anyone had a comment. She quickly found out he was referring only to board members when he told her she couldn’t speak.
As the two spoke over each other, Ryan interjected: “I’m sorry, we had our time for public comment, we can’t have the public participate in the board meeting.”
It was The Lens’ article that alerted the Louisiana Department of Education to the open meetings law violation that occurred during the meeting, department spokeswoman Anna Gatlin confirmed Monday.
Six days after the meeting on June 12, Patrick Walsh, the executive director of Charter Accountability, penned a one-page letter alerting the network to the violation and requiring it take action to rectify the situation and “return to good standing.”
“This letter serves as a formal notice of concern to the New Beginnings Schools Foundation regarding failure to adhere to the Louisiana Open Meetings laws,” he wrote.
In order to return to good standing, the network had to review portions of the open meetings law in a public meeting, which it did on June 25. Ryan also had to submit a signed letter stating the law was reviewed by the board of directors and “will be adhered to in the future.”
The next day, Ryan sent a letter to Walsh stating the network had complied with the requirements. On June 27, Walsh responded, stating the department was satisfied and New Beginnings had been returned to good standing.
New Beginnings isn’t the only charter school board that has struggled with open meetings law requirements.
Last spring the board of directors at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans privately discussed ways to oust their principal via email in the days leading up to the principal’s resignation.
Warren Easton Charter School’s board of directors went into executive session and barred the public from a portion of their meeting last fall to discuss forming a separate nonprofit. They cited the exception from Louisiana law that includes “discussion regarding the report, development, or course of action regarding security personnel, plans, or devices.”
Easton’s board put emphasis on the word “plans,” saying the law allowed them to discuss any plans out of the public eye, not just those involving security.
Some schools have taken a proactive approach to following open meetings law requirements.
Bricolage Academy, a new charter school which opened its doors Monday, approved a public comment policy at its board meeting last week.
In an Aug. 7 email to fellow board members, Einstein Charter School board president Ryan Bennett focused on open-meetings requirements.
“I want to be sure we’re clear about open meeting laws that govern when, how, and who can meet given our roles as board members of a public charter school,” Bennett wrote.
He went on to highlight portions of the law and how they impact the board.
“To note, though we must comply with appropriate law here, we should work to go above and beyond to ensure our community has access to us and to what happens in our meetings,” he wrote.