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Board revises budget, struggles with meeting laws

Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans board of directors struggled to comply with state open records and meetings laws at its meeting Monday night, as it reduced the school’s operating budget from $3.1 million to $2.8 million.

Over 100 parents and teachers were in attendance at the school’s cafeteria.  Parents learned about a budget shortfall at a PTO meeting last week.

The board sat at a circular lunch table. Despite two microphones resting on the table, sound was muffled. At one point a parent approached the board members and said they could not be heard.

A reporter for The Lens asked chairman Jean Montes for a copy of materials being distributed to the board at the beginning of the meeting.  Montes would only provide the agenda, and said that the board had not yet seen the revised budget.

General Director Jean-Jacques Grandiere was not present at the meeting.

“Jean-Jacques is sick and not able to provide his monthly report,” Montes said.

Director of Finance and Operations Julianne Ruocco presented a revised budget to the board.

Ruocco said when she arrived at the school in August the books had not been closed since April.  She said she has been working with a CPA to reconcile accounts.

“It’s not the result of theft, simply a loss for your operating year,” said Ruocco to the board.

“As a public entity we cannot operate with a deficit,” Ruocco said.

To make up for the gap in funding on top of an incorrectly reported fund balance at the end of last year Ruocco presented a revised budget. Only board members had access to the budget documents.

While the budget adopted earlier in the year stated the school carried a fund balance of $14,204 from the last fiscal year, it should have reflected a negative balance of $85,630, Ruocco said.

The revisions reflect a $200,000 loss in anticipated funding. They include a $120,000 drop in expected fee revenue, and $140,385 less than expected in per-pupil state funding.

Those numbers were offset by a $44,000 increase in IDEA/NCLB funding and a $17,372 increase in LA-4 funding.

To reduce the operating budget several adjustments were made, including a $26,000 reduction in salaries (1.6 percent drop), and a $176,000 reduction in taxes and employee benefits (41.1 percent drop).  The reserve fund of $89,578 was depleted, as well.

With a motion on the table to approve the revised budget several people took the opportunity for public comment.

Robert Bell asked the board to keep cuts from affecting the education staff.

A parent said he hoped the revised budget would have carried more discussion before a vote.  He though the recommendation for revision should not only come from Ruocco.

Another person asked the board to hold its decision until parents could hear from Grandiere.

The motion to revise the budget was approved with all but one member in favor.  Member Paige Saleun voted against.

Reporters from The Lens and Uptown Messenger waited for an hour and a half after the meeting ended to receive a copy of the budget. They showed board members excerpts from applicable laws:

From open meetings law:

I. ARTICLE XII, SECTION 3, LOUISIANA CONSTITUTION (1974): “No person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents, except in cases established by law.”

And from public records law:

§31. Right to examine records

B(3) The burden of proving that a public record is not subject to inspection, copying, or reproduction shall rest with the custodian.

 §33. Availability of records

B.(1) If the public record applied for is immediately available, because of its not being in active use at the time of the application, the public record shall be immediately presented to the authorized person applying for it.

Montes said he did not want to release the budget because the board had made mistakes in the past.

At 10:30 p.m. Ruocco provided the reporters with a copy of the budget.

Open Meetings Trouble

During the meeting the board made a motion to go into executive session.  On the agenda an executive session was listed citing “personnel matters of General Director.”  A reporter for The Lens asked the board if, in accordance with state law, the general director had been notified and requested to have the meeting in closed session.

“He was notified,” said Saleun adding, “he never responded.”

At the beginning of the meeting the board voted to add an item to executive session at the request of Joseph Dunn, the director of Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL).

When prompted by a reporter from Uptown Messenger, board members were slow to cite an applicable exception to the open meetings law for the added item.  The board then said it fell under the exception regarding the discussion of personnel.  When asked if the personnel to be discussed had been notified, Saleun then asked Dunn the same question.

Dunn said the people had been notified.

Saleun then asked for the advice of Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, who was seated in the audience.  Shirley clarified she was not able to offer a legal opinion and stated she did not know if a third-party notification would meet the requirements of the open meetings law.

At this point Saleun and the other members remove the second item for executive session, and Dunn was not invited into the closed session.

As to why CODOFIL wanted to meet in closed session, Dunn responded “It’s very complicated and is international relations oriented.”

After the 45-minute closed session board members returned.

“We meet to discuss our concerns with the general director,” said Montes.

“We hope Jean-Jacques will be back on Nov. 19,” he said.

Montes noted the board might have to look into options for temporary leadership at the school while Grandiere is gone.

The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.

Mary Dwyer who is head of the PTO said she thought it was a successful meeting.

“We still have unanswered questions,” said parent Mickey LeBlanc, noting the general director should be involved in making these decisions.

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