By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer
The Louisiana charter school law is designed to free independently run public-school campuses from many of the bureaucratic laws that educators say restrict their freedom. However, that doesn’t include the state’s open-meetings law.
In response to three months of requests from The Lens, a surprisingly large number of New Orleans charter school boards failed to comply with even basic requests for information. Many didn’t respond at all. Of the officials who did answer, some provided only partial information – and still others claimed they aren’t public officials or required to do their work in public, even though state law says otherwise.
Beginning in June, The Lens contacted 35 boards that govern 54 schools. The Lens asked each charter school for its annual meeting schedule, for a notice before every meeting and for a list of all board members and their mailing addresses. We did not contact the six newest schools, some only a few months old.
- * 21 boards overseeing 34 schools acknowledged the request.
- * Of those, only 10 boards overseeing 14 schools provided the requested information.
- * Six school boards that sent along mailing addresses for board members refused to provide their home addresses, which would let us gauge compliance with a residency requirement.
- * One board that responded was not in compliance with the residency requirement.
Concerns over openness and accountability have grown with the charter school movement.
The Orleans Parish School Board used to have a budget rivaling that of the city – close to half a billion dollars – but it now shares its state allocation with the Recovery School District and myriad charters. For citizens to follow the money allotted to public schools – $7,995 per child in state money – they need to know when and where the boards meet.
No longer can activists or interested taxpayers plan on attending just regular meetings of the School Board. They also need to travel to Baton Rouge sometimes to hear about Recovery School District schools, and try to track down the meetings of the nearly three dozen charter school boards. (see calendar of charter board meetings here, in Excel)
The Lens attended a handful of charter board meetings recently, and they were lonely affairs. At some, the only other audience members were employed by the school.
The responses The Lens received to its requests are “upsetting,” said Executive Director Carolyn Roemer Shirley from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, a voluntary organization for state charter schools. She said that the organization regularly emphasizes the need for transparency among its members.
“You are a public entity taking public dollars, and for there to be individuals out there that still don’t get it…
“I don’t want us to operate as schools seemed to have operated in the past, in a manner that is less than transparent,” she said. “That’s what got us here today. We have to do better, and we are expected to do better.”
Borrowing language from charter school backers, school reform advocate Karran Harper Royal explained the need for access.
“If parents are truly able to engage in real school choice,” she said, “they need to have access to information in multiple ways.”
What the law says
The charter law requires schools and their boards to comply with the open-meetings law, which says boards must create a schedule of meetings at the beginning of the calendar year.
The open-meetings law also says that the agendas must be sent at least 24 hours before any meeting to any news media outlet that requests such copy.
And part of the charter law requires 60 percent of the board members to live in the parish where the school is located, or in an adjacent parish.
What we received
The responses from some schools, however, indicated that board members weren’t aware of their legal obligations, or even aware that a charter school board is considered a public body.
For instance, a representative from Milestone SABIS Academy in the Uptown area told us that its board didn’t have to schedule its meetings in advance.
“On advice of counsel, there is no statutory requirement for a Louisiana charter school board of directors to set a schedule of its meetings at the beginning of the year,” Academy Director Catherine Boozer said in a statement.
Even so, she forwarded the meeting schedule that the board had indeed set for the rest of the year along with her statement. When The Lens informed her, again, of the open meetings law, she sent us back this statement:
“The Academy is chartered to a non-profit corporation under the Charter School Law and is not a ‘school board’ or a ‘public body’, as The Lens has suggested. Second, the requirement for annual meeting schedules is conditioned in Section 19 of the Open Meetings Law to those instances where the regular meetings of a public body are ‘established by law, resolution or ordinance.’ The Lens has not shown any basis to conclude that the meetings of the chartered, corporate board governing the Academy have been established by law, resolution or ordinance.”
Another school board said that while its board meetings were open to the public, its board’s finance committee meetings were not. Executive Assistant Raquel Tejeda of Firstline Schools, which oversees John Dibert Charter, Arthur Ashe Charter, Samuel Green Charter, and Langston Hughes Academy, wrote in an e-mail:
“Unfortunately, finance meetings are not public board meetings and therefore are not open to the public,” she wrote. “Regular board meetings are opened to the public.”
When The Lens sent Firstline a copy of the open-meetings law, which says committees are bound by the same law as the entire board, Chief Operating Officer Adrian Morgan called to say that finance meetings were indeed open to the public.
The issue of board residency has been raised by charter opponents, who claim that charters are often run by members who aren’t of the community and therefore don’t understand some of New Orleans’ unique culture – and the challenges that come with it.
By law, board members may choose to keep their home addresses confidential. They must give their address to state officials, however, who verify board residency when a charter is issued or renewed.
Of the boards that acknowledged our requests for members’ addresses, The Choice Foundation, which oversees Esperanza Charter and Lafayette Academy, was the most adamant in refusing to do so.
James Huger, board chairman and founder, wrote that he did not provide mailing addresses for board members not only because he wasn’t required to by law, but because he said The Choice Foundation’s board members were not publicly employed.
“Our board members are not public employees, so we are not required to give out this information,” he said in an e-mail.
One school board that provided home addresses did not meet the requirement that 60 percent of the board live in or near the parish where the school is located, yet the state still granted the charters for both of its schools.
The Pelican Foundation oversees Abramson Science and Technology Charter in New Orleans and Kenilworth Science and Technology in Baton Rouge. Four of the board’s seven members live in or around East Baton Rouge Parish, one member lives in Tangipahoa Parish, and the other two members live in Jefferson Parish. Because the state considers Tangipahoa an adjacent parish to Orleans, 43 percent of the board meets requirements for Abramson; 57 percent of the board that meets requirements for Kenilworth, according to state records.
Erin Bendily, director of the state Education Department’s Office of Parental Options, said that the current law doesn’t address boards such as Pelican.
“So that’s something that we are going to have to look at in terms of policy, to make sure that we can account for situations like that, because right now, there is not any allowance for that,” she said.
She said she believes Pelican’s intent was to try to get an accurate representation of the community of each school.
What the state and other agencies think
When told of our findings, state Education Department spokeswoman Ileana Ledet said that while the Attorney General’s office mainly regulates compliance with open-meetings laws, the schools could nonetheless face consequences at the education department for not following these or other laws.
“If a charter school is not complying with any federal/state law, or BESE policy, the Office of Parental Options includes that in its reports to BESE on that particular charter school’s overall performance,” Ledet wrote, referring to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “This could lead to a school not being eligible for extension or renewal.”
Shirley, of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said transparency has been one of the major topics of discussion at each of the organization’s past three annual conferences.
She said that 95 percent of charter schools in New Orleans are members.
As part of the organization’s Trust and Transparency campaign, Shirley said, the organization asks members to release on the Internet their board’s meeting dates, board members’ names and at least one contact for members, board minutes, and meeting agendas. The organization checked members’ websites last month, Shirley said, to see if this information was actually posted. Of the 62 school websites they surveyed, only 15 had all the information. (See the Excel spreadsheet with the association’s findings here or pdf here)
And the Public Affairs Research Council, a non-partisan statewide good-government think tank, looked at the openness of charter schools as part of a broader analysis of the charter movement in the spring.
“Transparency, in particular, is a concern because it refers to the ease with which the public can access information about existing and proposed charter schools,” the report reads. “Unfortunately, the charter school landscape in Louisiana remains difficult for many parents to navigate.”
A door-to-door effort
Though she went about it on a smaller scale, charter school transparency advocate Ashana Bigard also went looking for information recently.
She visited 24 of the city’s charters seeking board and finance information, starting in March. She said she was only able to get responses from 14 of the schools she went to. Of those schools, she says Audubon Charter was the only one to get her the information within a half hour.
“Some of the schools I went to several times and didn’t get the information,” Bigard said. “I went to Sophie B. Wright nine times and never received any information. And I liked the principal, and her staff was really sweet, but they didn’t get it to me.”
Sharon Clark, Wright’s principal, said that she gave Bigard the school board’s meeting schedule when Bigard visited Wright last year.
“I didn’t have [the board’s] minutes at the time, but I asked her what time period she needed the information by, and I never got that,” Clark said. “She just said she was coming back in a few weeks to follow up. If you put in a request and give me some time, I can get that information to you.”
Wright did not respond to The Lens’ request for information, although we contacted Clark by e-mail and phone, in addition to the letter we mailed to the school.
Bigard said that another school she visited, Warren Easton Charter High School, told her she would need to pay for the information.
“At Warren Easton, in order for me to get the information it was like $70,” Bigard said. “They charged you by the page for information. If a parent wanted to ask for that information they wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Janet Gaudet, fund development director for Easton, confirmed this in an e-mail, saying that Easton charges 50 cents per page for copies of documents. Although there is no charge for someone to review records, the open-records law allows custodians of public records to charge “a reasonable fee” for making copies of those records.
Some schools got Bigard the information after almost a month, she said. Others directed her to their school’s website, where only some of the information was posted. Still other school representatives told her they would have to get approval to release the information, and that she should come back in a week.
The law requires public records to be released immediately, unless the document is in use. If it’s in use, the public body has three days to release it.
Bigard did the work for Research on Reforms, an agency that collects data to determine the effects that the upsurge in charter schools post-Katrina has had on education. Royal, the school reform advocate who also works with the agency, said she has long noticed a lack of openness in charter schools.
“I don’t think that the charter schools that I have dealt with have been transparent at all,” Royal said. “These schools need to go above and beyond the Sunshine Laws with giving out information on their meetings, their agenda.”
Because Royal’s son attends Lusher Charter School, she says Lusher is one of the main schools she’s dealt with, and that the school is “very good about sharing information with the parents – except for when it comes to board.”
She said she “is sure [the board] engages the PTSA in decisions about major changes.” She is not a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association.
Bigard also said she was not a member of the PTSA when one of her children attended Lusher because she had a time-consuming job that prevented her from attending meetings.
Lusher PTSA President Kiki Huston serves on the Lusher board, and she said the PTSA is “fully aware of all budgetary information,” and board activities. She also said that board information, including board meeting dates and times, is posted on the school’s website, and parents are free to use the school library’s computers if they don’t have ones at home. Though we found the Lusher meeting dates on the site, no times were included.
Lusher was one of 10 schools to provide all information requested by The Lens.
Royal said more methods of giving out this information are necessary.
“You should be able to walk in and go to the secretary and see a binder and have all the information on the website in that binder because you have to make it accessible to people who don’t have the Internet,” she said. “And just because you can go to the library and access it doesn’t mean that everyone has the technical literacy to know how to do that.”
Note: Of the schools that didn’t respond with any information, five said they were not aware of our mailings. While the Postal Service did return four of the letters we sent out, we checked the schools’ addresses with the state and found that one school was not in operation anymore, two schools switched buildings and that we’d misread one school’s address. We then resent letters to the three schools. The Postal Service did not return the second set of mailings.