The Warren Easton board of directors appears to have violated public meetings law at its October meeting, again revealing its ignorance of when it can and can’t exclude the public from its deliberations.
This is the board’s fourth apparent violation of public meetings laws in a year. In this case, a lawyer told The Lens that the board misread state law describing when a public body can meet in private.
The topic at hand at the Oct. 17 meeting was whether to form a separate nonprofit to accept anonymous donations. “There are many people who like to give, but don’t like to make it public,” board president David Garland said.
When he proposed going into executive session to discuss the proposal, a reporter for The Lens produced a list of legal grounds for closed sessions and asked the board to identify which one justified the motion on the table.
Board members Garland and David Napoleon, an attorney, cited two possibilities:
- “Discussion regarding the report, development, or course of action regarding security personnel, plans, or devices.”
- “Or any other matters now provided for or as may be provided for by the legislature.”
Asked how discussion of forming a nonprofit fell under the first exception, Garland said, “Regarding security personnel, plans, which is a general category; this is a plan we are working on.”
When a reporter for The Lens said that the exception appeared to pertain to security issues, Napoleon responded, “We don’t interpret it that way. We interpret it to be plans, it’s a plan, that’s how we interpret it.”
But a lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said The Lens interpreted the law correctly. That exception applies to security plans, not planning in general, said Mark Caramanica. The Lens turned to Caramanica for guidance because of charter school boards’ persistent violations of public meetings law.
“That’s a ridiculous reading of that exemption,” Caramanica said of the board’s rationale.
Garland said the second possibility was a “catch-all” exception, and he argued that he could exclude the public because the executive session would be a discussion of legal opinions.
Because he had secured an opinion from a lawyer, he said attorney-client privilege applied as he shared what he learned with the board.
“You’re the only one who met with the attorney so you have to inform the other clients,” principal Alexina Medley said, siding with Garland.
The only other way to have the discussion would be for all members to meet in the attorney’s office, Garland said, noting that such a meeting would itself be a violation of open meetings law.
The Louisiana open meetings law does include an exception for legal matters, but only in relation to litigation.
Reading the law the way Garland did would mean that a board could go into executive session any time there is a legal matter up for discussion, Caramanica said—an interpretation of the open meetings rule so broad as to render it meaningless.
After the 20-minute closed session the board voted to create the new nonprofit to accept anonymous, private donations for the school.
Most other charter schools in Orleans Parish have had trouble following the law.
“I don’t think that’s exclusive to Warren Easton; I think many charter schools are very confused about public meetings laws,” said Kathleen Padian, deputy superintendent of charter schools for the Orleans Parish School Board.
In this case, Padian gave the board credit for at least saying in the public meeting that they wanted to discuss creating the nonprofit. She said it’s possible that they wouldn’t have had to raise the issue at a meeting at all.
This has been an ongoing problem for Warren Easton’s board:
- In September, the board claimed the right to enter executive session to discuss a disciplinary matter, but did so without notifying the individual under discussion 24 hours in advance, as required by law. In the meeting minutes, there is no mention of The Lens reporter’s questions about which exemption was cited.
- At the same meeting, board member Charles Petrey requested an executive session to discuss what he described as an “employee compensation issue.” State law, however, doesn’t exempt such issues from open discussion, and salaries of public employees are public record.
- In November 2011 the board held an executive session for two reasons: a legal opinion on school publicity and security issues involving a student. Security issues can be discussed in private, but school publicity can’t.
Padian said she would encourage Warren Easton’s board members to attend training on the open meetings law, and she would see if OPSB’s general counsel would provide them with guidelines.