Lycée Francais board bars press from meeting with parents

Board members at the embattled Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans Charter School Monday closed the doors to “anybody who is not connected with the family” of the school as they met for two hours with parents in what they insisted was not a public meeting.

The closed-door session involving three board members and about 30 parents followed a 45-minute, open meeting during which board members voted 6-0, with little discussion, to approve hiring Gisele Schexnider as interim CEO and academic director for the troubled school. One board member was absent.

Board president Jean Montes said last week he’d already hired Schexnider on Nov. 30 without board approval; during Monday’s meeting, he described the vote as simply “ratification” of that decision.

Before he called that meeting to order, however, Montes told the audience of about 50 that there would be a second “closed meeting” for “parents, teachers, and those directly affiliated with the school to remain for a question, comments and answer session.”

After adjourning the public meeting, Montes told those gathered that “a couple board members and some staff” would remain to take questions. He asked that “anybody who is not connected with the family of LFNO to give us some privacy so we can talk about any questions you might have at this time.”

Reporters for The Lens and Uptown Messenger left the the building. But 20 minutes later, both reporters re-entered the meeting to object. The Lens reporter asked board members to state what legal basis they had to meet privately.

The state public meetings law says that it “shall be construed liberally” because operating in public “is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society.”

And according to a 2009 Louisiana Attorney General’s opinion cited by The Lens, lack of a quorum is not enough to exclude a public body from being subject to the state’s open meeting laws. If a portion of the board is acting in an advisory capacity for the board as a whole, it must notice its meetings and comply with open government laws.

“The fact that a committee cannot make a final decision on a matter does not remove meetings of that committee from the ambit of open meetings requirements,” the opinion states.

Board member Joel Vilmenay responded to The Lens’ objection by providing a list of exemptions to the state open meetings law from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press website.

He later said he had mistakenly provided those exemptions and had meant to provide another piece of paper, which he then handed over, with the definition of a quorum under state law. Because a quorum of the board was not present during the Q&A session, Vilmenay said, the gathering was not subject to open meetings law.

Vilmenay asked reporters leave the building and not come back. He said he would speak with them after the meeting if they desired.

Some parents spoke up and asked The Lens to leave.

“Let her finish talking,” another said. reporter Danielle Dreilinger appeared to have stayed in the building as she reported afterward that parents expressed concern over security — something that was not discussed in public portion of the meeting.

During the formal board meeting, only one person objected to Schexnider’s appointment.

She replaces school director and CEO Jean-Jacques Grandiere, who resigned Nov. 23.

Larisa Diephuis, who said she works in human resources for The New Teacher Project, told the board she doesn’t understand how Schexnider could be hired without the board first holding a public meeting.

“Given that this is an extremely important position for the school it is extremely disturbing to me that the position was never posted,” Diephuis said.

Board member Catherine MacPhaille responded by describing Schexnider as “eminently qualified for the position of academic director.”

“I’m ready to work with everybody to make sure that this school heads in a straight line to the future it deserves,” Schexnider said before asking if she should outline her background.

Montes stopped her from doing so, saying it would be discussed later.

In only its second year of operation, Lycée Français has endured the resignations of two school leaders. Just two of its original nine members remain on the board. Last month, the board voted to cut $200,000 from its budget after learning of a $85,000 deficit.

Despite the concerns, the school has more than doubled in size since its founding, with about 340 students now enrolled.

Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Virginia nonprofit that specializes in open government issues, said the board’s actions raise a number of potential issues including questions of equal access and discrimination as they admitted some and excluded others.

“Technically it may not have been a violation of the open meetings law,” Caramanica said, “but it violates the spirit of the law.”

Questioned after the meeting about the impact of closing the session — and news of the private session — to parents who were unable to attend, Montes and Vilmenay appeared unworried.

“They are invited to come next time,” Montes said.

The board will meet again on Jan. 7; Vilmaney said the board is inclined to hold another closed session following the public meeting.

Click here to hear audio of Lens reporter Marta Jewson objecting to the private meeting 20 minutes after board members closed the doors.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • Anonymous

    This is troubling. The Lycee is a public school and has an obligation to conduct its business in public. Furthermore, current parents are not the only ones with a legitimate stake in its operations. I am currently researching kindergartens for my child next year. They owe me, as a potential parent, the same consideration of current parents so that I can make an informed decision about my child’s education.

    This behavior of Montes and the board further erodes my confidence in the Lycee.

    Please continue to pressure them to meet their obligation to the public.

    (Note: I’m withholding my name, since my child is applying to the Lycee. What does it say about this board that I fear retribution from them for expressing an opinion publicly about their actions?)

  • Prefer not to say

    Did anyone get Ms. Schexneider’s resume? How do we know she is “eminently qualified for the position of academic director.” Will The Lens post the resume as a follow-up to this article?

  • Current Lycee Member

    The current board continues to micromanage every aspect of the school, including the recent firing(s) and quick hiring of Ms. Schexneider. I don’t believe she has any experience “running” a school, not to mention one with serious problems internally. It’s my understanding her experience is in teaching only. I would like to understand why the school never even posted for a viable candidate. She should at the least be interim until a more qualified person can be found to put this school back on some solid ground. Our teachers are excellent as is the French education our children receive. However, I am concerned we will ultimately lose our French teachers and become just an immersion type school. We signed our child up for the benefit of the French system and ultimately the possiblity of the bacalaureat. We’ve lost so many excellent leaders, staff, and teachers under the current board. We desperately need some new leaders for our school and some fresh faces on the board working with transparency and creating a more united school, not one separated by parents who are disgusted with the way things have been going and other parents that seem to look the other way.

  • kally

    I think the parents of this school have been duped, but it serves them right, as they keep allowing this board to violate its charter over and over again. Their new Director in not a certified teacher in the French or American systems. This school was going to have difficulty getting French Accreditation before this new decision, but without a French certified director it will be next to impossible. Shnexneider has never run a school ( maybe a summer camp at the Alliance…….). I too would like to know what makes her “eminently” qualified? Is it that she taught second grade at McGehee? Is is that she taught adults french at the Alliance Francaise ( and that did not go very well, do some homeworke) How many years has she been friends with one of the original board members? maybe is it that she is called “Madame” that fools them and make the get a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  • David

    I thought it was a good jesture. The board admitted to mistakes and began to try and look for solutions going forward. This was a chance for the board members to answer pressing issues that needed immediate resolution. These press persons have reported so poorly on these incidents. They have talked about hearse and rumors as facts. But remember they had a source so it is ok to print. If a real news agency thought it was news then the coverage might be less biased. It is bad enough and does not need to create further gossip from rumors. Only the facts please. One fact when the 50 parents were asked if anyone had a problem with a teacher only 2 raised their hands with good reason. So in a school with poor leadership all but one 1st grade class have any complaints, that is a reflection of how good these teachers are able perform regardless of these issues. Not once have I heard any of these reports mention the parenting satisfaction level with the teachers of the school.

    It does not change the lack of leadership or action. The teachers and parents have been lied to. If the actions of this meeting are noble than the resulting actions should be self evident. If no action is taken towards improvement of the glaring issues going forward than I believe the teachers and parents would have reached their limit.