By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Despite a state law requiring public bodies to make their budgets available to the public before approval, and to hold well-publicized hearings to gather citizen input, only six of the 43 charter school boards in New Orleans could show that they even come close to complying, The Lens has determined.

Many board officials expressed ignorance of the law and apparently have been operating this way for years. After The Lens provided copies of the law – and pointed out that their charters require adherence to it – several said they would work to comply. The state Education Department said compliance with the law is part of an annual audit for each charter board, but it’s not considered a significant area.

The current situation is frustrating for anyone looking to understand and provide input on how millions of public dollars are being spent to educate the majority of the city’s public-school children. Charter schools are free of many state regulations, but they are still public institutions financed with taxpayer money and subject to open-government laws.

Larry Hammond, a three-year volunteer at Martin Behrman Charter School, said the Algiers Charter School Association board posts meeting times and dates on its website, but it does not make the budget available to parents before the approval date, unless they formally seek it.

“I think you can get it through public information requests, but I didn’t know anything about the budget before this meeting,” he said, sitting in the audience at an Oct. 27 board meeting. “There’s a problem here. As a citizen who is paying their taxes, that’s a problem.”

The Lens’ findings come a year after we reported that most charter school boards weren’t complying with a law to provide legally required meeting notices. Even now, some boards still don’t follow that law, which is essential to informing the public.

The boards for Andrew Wilson Charter School, Morris Jeff Community School, New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, and Fannie C. Williams Charter School do the best job keeping up with the open-budgeting law, as shown in this spreadsheet detailing the responses gathered by The Lens.

Two other boards, Lagniappe Academy’s board and the board that runs Lafayette Academy and Esperanza Charter School, made steps towards compliance after we sent them detailed outlines of the law.

We couldn’t determine what happens at eight other boards because officials did not respond to our repeated requests under the state Open Records Act – another law that charter officials are obligated to follow.

The boards that did respond offered a range of responses when questioned by The Lens over the past three months. For example:

  • Firstline Schools, which oversees four campuses, initially said it was a non-governmental body and didn’t have to comply. A spokeswoman later relented after reading the law.
  • Martin Luther King Charter’s attorney at first said the law applied to some charters but not others, including King. When we notified her of the law, she said our interpretation was flawed.
  • Many said the required notices and hearings were provided by either the Orleans Parish School Board or the Recovery School District – the two main chartering agencies. However, the law makes it clear that the budget process is the responsibility of each individual board, a stance backed by the state Department of Education and the State Legislative Auditor.

Indeed, the president of the Orleans Parish School Board made it clear during its budget-approval process that she couldn’t vouch for the budgets of the 11 schools chartered by the board. Those budgets had to be included in paperwork sent to the state along with the board’s budget.

Budget Director Wayne Delarge did not present detailed information about charter school budgets, and the board even took the unusual step of passing a resolution that expressly said the board wasn’t taking responsibility for the charters’ budgets.

Moran rhetorically asked her fellow board members and school board administrators why charter schools didn’t hold their own public hearings so that taxpayers could question the officials who actually created the budgets.

“We are voting on this based on the information they’ve provided, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve looked into it,” board President Lourdes Moran said at the Sept. 15 meeting where the board approved its own budget – after posting the proper legal notice.

In a recent interview, she said charter schools should be scrutinized as closely as the School Board.

“The whole budget process, to me, on the charter-school level has to be open and has to be held to the same levels that we’re held to,” she said, “because it’s all public funding.”

Law seeks to involve the public

The Louisiana Local Governmental Budget Act, enacted in 1980, is designed to encourage full public participation in governing bodies’ decisions about public dollars – in short, to give taxpayers a chance to follow the money.

The law sets out clear requirements for public bodies:

  • Post a notice in an official journal that the proposed budget is available, and announce the time and place of a public hearing on the budget
  • Wait at least 10 days before holding that public hearing
  • Approve the budget at a subsequent public meeting
  • Post a notice that the budget process is complete

“Preparation and adoption of a budget … in any manner contrary to the provisions of this Chapter is hereby expressly prohibited,” the law declares.

In most cases, the official journal would be The Times-Picayune. Only one board, Choice Foundation operating Lafayette and Esperanza schools, provided copies of such public notice.

When asked whether charter schools are subject to this law, a state Education Department spokeswoman simply pointed to the tenet of charter school law that says they are. A 2008 State Legislative Auditor’s guide to the budget act agrees.

In response to requests from The Lens, most boards said they provided notice of their meeting where the budget was passed, though most provide only 24 hours’ notice for board meetings. And some agendas can be opaque, simply listing standing items, “old business” and “new business,” with little hint as to what’s going to be voted on.

In some cases, it appears, the boards aren’t complying simply because they didn’t know they had to. Most boards are comprised of volunteers, who receive little training. While some members may have private board experience, many have not had to work within the strictures of open-government laws.

The president of Benjamin Franklin Charter High School’s governing board, Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education, said that at first glance, he didn’t think the law applied.

“When I looked at it, I was like, ‘What? We’re not subject to this,’ ” Duris Holmes said. “I keep every document relating back to the charter, and I looked it up, and it’s in the original operating agreement with the Orleans Parish School Board. I can’t say that we went and read it.”

Holmes admitted that the board overlooked this law and that it would work to comply in the future.

Even if the Franklin board wasn’t in strict accordance with the law, he said it is accommodating to those who want to participate.

“We make sure we have open meetings and that the budget was discussed at open meetings,” Holmes said. “Obviously we were weak on the lack on publication and the certification of compliance.”

Like many board officials who responded to The Lens’ requests, Holmes said that his board has always made the budget available to anyone who asked for it. However, this presumes people know when the budget is being developed and are savvy enough to seek it.

A variety of reactions

Of the 35 boards that responded to us, 11 agreed that they don’t comply with the law and promised to look into making changes for next year or took immediate action to comply. Another 22 didn’t respond to our follow-up communication that explained, in fuller detail, what the law requires. One board, Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, responded to thank us for replying, but was mum on future compliance. Still another, Friends of King, Inc., of Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School of Science and Technology, responded, but debated our legal interpretation.

Initially, a Firstline Schools spokeswoman said the law wasn’t a factor for them. Firstline runs John Dibert Community School, Samuel Green Charter School, Arthur Ashe Charter School, and Clark Prep High School.

“In our research regarding the statute you cited in your public records request, we came to the conclusion that the statute does not apply to us, as we are a non-governmental, non-elected non-profit organization,” Rebekah Cain wrote.

After we sent Cain a copy of the law and cited the relevant charter school law, she said that the charter operator would internally review the law and “ensure we are doing everything we need to be doing.”

“We always are working to comply with all regulations that apply to us, and we are actually working with the [state Department of Education] to ensure that we are complying with all laws that apply to us,” she said later in a phone interview.

Officials at the Choice Foundation, which runs Lafayette Academy and Esperanza Charter School, also changed their tune after our Sept. 21 request. Initially, they sent us a Sept. 28 response, which included the agenda of the board meeting in which the previous year’s budget was approved, the minutes of that meeting, and a brief overview of the board’s budget process. In the agenda, the word “budget” is listed as an “in-depth” item, but it does not say that the budget will be approved, but simply that it will be discussed.

After we sent them back an Oct. 5 response that notified them of their legal obligations, they published a notice in the paper Oct. 17 stating that their proposed budget was available for public inspection, and that announced the date of their Oct. 26 board meeting, where they discussed the budget. The budget is scheduled to be approved at the board’s November meeting.

The board of Lagniappe Academy took a similar route, complying with some tenets of the law after we told them about it. However well-intentioned, though, Lagniappe still fell short of legal requirements. On Oct. 17, the day we emailed a school official a second public-records request, the school’s website was updated with a notice that said the budget approval process was complete, that the budget was approved June 30, and that the budget was available for public review.

Perhaps more problematic, though, is how Lagniappe officials approved the budget. The board did not take action at an open public meeting, as the law requires, but rather by privately passing around a document that each member signed, Chief Operations Officer Joe Daschbach explained in an email.

“The proposed 2011-2012 budget was circulated among board members and adopted via unanimous written consent on June 30, 2011, due to the state-imposed adoption deadline of June 30, 2011,” Daschbach said. “The proposed budget was discussed, and a time for formal approval was set, at a board meeting on May 21, 2011.”

The May 21 meeting’s minutes show that board members decided to approve the budget at the June meeting. Lagniappe could not provide minutes from a June meeting to The Lens, and Daschbach later confirmed that because the board didn’t have a quorum at the June meeting, no official business was conducted.

Daschbach said his board will comply with the law in the future.

Attorney Tracie Washington took two different points of view, before and after reviewing the law. She serves as legal counsel for Friends of King Inc., the board that runs Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School of Science and Technology.

At first she said the law didn’t apply to King, and she advised a reporter to better research the topic to avoid abashment when sending out public records requests.

“On behalf of King school I provided the response sent earlier because the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act mandates do not apply to Recovery School District Type 5 Charter Schools,” she wrote. “I had hoped you would investigate the law a bit more thoroughly in order to avoid any embarrassment to yourself personally and professionally.”

After the reporter provided the law and a statement from the Department of Education backing up the applicability of the law to all charters, Washington said the board had fully complied with the portion of the law that mandates charters to turn in budgets to the state. Washington did not produce records that showed the budget was available for review 10 days in advance or that the board held a separate public hearing on the matter.

But she did say that the part of law that mandates schools to hold a public hearing is a matter of interpretation. She said that the King board provides ample opportunity for comment and said any distinction between a regular board meeting a public hearing was artificial and minute.

“At each and every board meeting, the public is entitled to comment on and discuss school finance and the school budget, which is the purpose and legislative intent of any ‘public hearing,’ ” Washington wrote. “The King board neither restricts nor prohibits public comment on the budget when the budget is on the agenda.”

Dan Lewis, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans who specializes in political participation, agrees with Washington that a meeting and a public hearing are essentially the same. But in an email, he said the provision in the law requiring ample notice is key.

“In this case, it would be my opinion that the school boards meet the public hearing requirement if they 1) provide the 10 day notice that they will be considering a proposed budget at the next meeting, [and] 2) allow for public comment prior to making any decisions,” he wrote.

Washington is also on board of the Treme Charter School Association, which runs McDonogh No. 42 Treme Charter School. However, Treme was one of the eight boards that never responded to our request, despite a mailed letter to the school and multiple emails to Washington that requested a reply.

Five of the 12 schools in the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, a voluntary membership and support organization for charters, provided agendas and minutes of the meetings where their budgets were approved, and sent this same statement in response to The Lens’ request:

“Completion of the budget adoption process has been through the Orleans Parish School Board’s adoption of the master budget for its direct-run and its charter schools. Notice of completion, if any, would be in the custody of the Secretary of the Orleans Parish School Board.”

Rose Peterson, director of the Eastbank Collaborative, did not respond to calls and emails for comment on her organization’s role in providing advice for its membership on budgeting issues.

Who ensures compliance?

Though the state Education Department takes the firm stance that charters have to comply with this budget law, it doesn’t appear to have taken any action against schools who weren’t following the law.

The department’s audits gauge compliance in a variety of areas, but open budgeting isn’t high on the priority list, explained Erin Bendily, former head of the department’s Office of Parental Options who now heads the departmental support office.

“Although the audit process focuses on high-risk findings or “internal controls” and does not characterize these types of findings as significant, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) recognizes the critical need for transparency, public accountability and public input,” Bendily wrote in an  email Thursday.

“Likewise, as recently announced, the LDOE’s Office of Parental Options is working closely with appointing charter school authorities to ensure all charter schools are complying with federal and state laws and the conditions of their charter school contracts, including the Local Governmental Budget Act. This includes intensifying our monitoring processes and activities, establishing and communicating clearly defined consequences for non-compliance, and ensuring charter school boards and leaders are clearly aware of legal obligations through technical training and assistance.”

As The Lens reported in earlier stories about charter schools’ non-compliance with the state’s open-meetings law, such things are supposed to be reviewed when charter schools come up for periodic renewal.

Fourteen schools were up for renewal during the state’s round of charter approvals in January. All but one of those failed to comply with the portion of the open-meetings law that requires them to send public notice to news organizations that request them. All 14 were renewed, without any comment about this open-government law.

Perhaps the group most affected by charters circumventing of public input laws are taxpayers like Hammond, or even more so, the taxpaying parent. Leigh Checkman, parent of a student at Audubon Charter School, shared her frustration with the school’s failure to share complete budgetary information with parents, outside of the school telling parents how donations will be used.

“I haven’t seen a big actual thing, like, ‘Here are the numbers,’ ” she said. “You get little clues about the budget here and there, but as far as the big picture, I just don’t know.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...