More than a dozen Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle-Orleans parents are seeking the ouster of two of the charter school’s board members, and they are demanding the board address what they say is a series of problems undermining the school’s integrity.
In an eight-page letter they filed with the school’s board Friday, the parents complain of leadership turnover, board micro-management, business-related conflicts of interest and possible breaches in student privacy and safety.
Calling themselves the Rebuilding Trust Working Group, the parents are demanding that board President Jean Montes and board member Paige Saleun resign or recuse themselves until a lawsuit filed against them by a former teacher is resolved.
Neither Montes nor Saleun responded Friday to The Lens’ requests for comment.
“Lycee is a school worth fighting for,” the parents wrote, requesting that the matter be added to the board’s Monday night meeting agenda. “This must be corrected promptly and confidence restored or this stellar educational environment may be lost.”
In its second year, the 340-student Lycée Français has endured the resignations of two school leaders, and just two of its original nine members remain on the board. The board in November voted to cut $200,000 from its budget after learning of a $85,000 deficit. Last month, a fired special education teacher sued Montes and Saleun, alleging character defamation after the police were called.
In Friday’s letter, signed by 15 people and delivered to the board by New Orleans attorney Robert Rachal, the parents’ detailed the following concerns:
Turnover: Only two of the nine original board members are still serving, and two school leaders have come and gone.
Disproportionate power to a few: Board members are filling vacancies as they occur, a process, they write, that “allows the remaining board members to form factions and exercise disproportionate control over the board and thus the school and public funds.”
Student safety and privacy concerns: Since November, the grievance says, no administrative employees were at the school to “answer phones, doors, messages and parent requests, sign in visitors and to manage the private personal information of the students and teachers.” The situation has recently been resolved during school hours, they write, but not when children are in after-care. The parents wrote that they were concerned the lack of oversight during that period may have threatened security of confidential student and employee records.
Potential conflicts of interest and lack of transparency: “Major concerns have also arisen regarding budgeting and finance and lack of transparency on what are public funds,” the letter says. It cites by way of example a $13,500 contract the school had with Sweet Olive Design and Development Company for nine months from October 2011 to June 2012, which was later increased to $75,000 a year and signed by Montes.
The letter states that the company is run by someone who is “a personal friend and business associate” to Saleun and Montes.
Sweet Olive owners Mary Carstens and Lora Reugger told The Lens Friday that neither of them met Montes until early 2011, when they volunteered their services to help the school with its fundraising efforts.
Reugger said she had known Saleun since about 2009 because their kids attended the same school. She said she’d become friends with Saleun in 2010, but that she doesn’t believe that relationship had any influence over the business contract because it was other school officials who approached her about doing the work.
Carstens said she did do some work on the website for Chateau du Lac Bistro in Metairie, where Saleun’s husband is chef, but that it was after she was already working for Lycee. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s corporations database, Saleun is an officer and registered agent for the business.
Carstens estimated their company has brought in about $900,000 to Lycee through its fundraising efforts and by improving the way the school reports student funding data to the state.
“I do believe that the statements in the grievance letter amount to defamation,” Reugger said, adding that she and her business partner have contacted an attorney.
The parents say quick action is warranted and necessary.
“The recent actions at Lycee,” the parents wrote, “have caused a loss of confidence in the abilities or integrity of the school … Many parents and many outstanding French teachers of Lycee may be lost unless these issues are resolved promptly.”
Besides demanding two board members resign, the group is asking that teachers be included in the selection of a new principal/chief executive officer.
Jean-Jacques Grandiere, their last CEO, resigned in November and was replaced shorty after by Interim CEO Gisele Schexnider, a move some parents complained happened without proper board discussion or input from the school community.
The parent group also wants three non-voting positions to be added to the governing board – two members elected by the school’s parents and one elected by the teachers.
Carstens and Reugger said they felt the demands are representative of only a few disgruntled people and not the greater school community that includes about 600 parents.
“A lot of good things happen at this school,” Carstens said. “I wish parents would stop trying to micromanage.”
Last month, state schools Superintendent John White offered his assistance finding a consultant to help Lycee leaders find a new CEO.
Some of the same parents who signed Friday’s letter – a group of 14 – wrote a letter in response asking White to investigate the board’s recent decisions, including its hiring of Schexnider.
Rachal, the attorney for the Rebuilding Trust Working Group, copied a number of people on Friday’s letter, including White and the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, whom White asked to assist the school in its search for a permanent leader.
Barry Landry, a spokesman with the Louisiana Department of Education, said late Friday that White had not yet received the letter.
The group filed their complaints with the board as step two in a process outlined by the state’s Office of Parental Options, which asks that parents first speak with their charter school’s administration, then with the board and finally file a grievance with the school’s authorizer.
The parent group made it clear in the letter that they intend to continue collecting signatures in time for Monday’s meeting.
The school’s board of directors will hold a public meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m. at 5951 Patton St.