For three consecutive months, the board that governs Martin Luther King and Craig charter schools has failed to comply with a law to fully provide public notice of their meetings – despite a commitment to The Lens to do so.

Further, when a Lens reporter brought the issue to the board recently, general counsel Tracie Washington interrupted the reporter, and referred to his race in explaining that the board could eject him from the meeting.

“We can turn the white men out of this meeting if they’re disruptive,” she said, comparing him to well-known New Orleans gadfly Sandra Wheeler Hester.

Click here for a recording of the exchange between Washington and Lens reporter Joshua Johnston. Washington’s remarks about Johnston’s race come in at 1:49 of this 3 minute recording.

After a subsequent meeting that wasn’t properly noticed, Friends of King charter board President Hilda Young agreed in a conversation with editor Steve Beatty to provide the agendas to The Lens as requested and required, but Washington quickly told Beatty otherwise. Washington said King’s outside attorney, Henry Julien, would continue to negotiate the issue with The Lens.

Offered the opportunity to comment on these specifics recently, Washington wrote in a brief email, in part, “I disagree with your statements below.  Obviously, I stand behind the statements in my emails, in their contexts,” as well as those from Julien.

At issue is the state’s Open Meetings Law, which begins:

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. Toward this end, the provisions of this Chapter shall be construed liberally.”

The law requires all public bodies – and each charter school board is a public body – to provide written public notice of any meeting 24 hours in advance of the meeting. It further requires that the public notice:

“…shall include, but need to be limited to…mailing a copy of the notice to any member of the news media who requests notice of such meetings.”

The Lens has requested such notices from every charter board in the city, and most boards have complied in the past year.

Washington has said repeatedly that she doesn’t believe the law requires the board to notify the news media.

“Even though the King Charter Board is fully aware that it is not a requirement of law, Mrs. Sylvia Ellison sends you notice and reminders of our meetings each month via email” she wrote in a June email to The Lens, when we first tried to resolve the issue.

However, Ellison, a school employee who serves as a liaison to the board, did not always provide such notice. And in fact, Washington later wrote to The Lens to say that Ellison would discontinue sending such notices.

Later in June, after discussions with the editor, Julien sent an email to The Lens that appeared to satisfy the law:

“I spoke to Ms. Washington re: the agenda. She states that they will send you the same agenda they send to the Board members. Whether that includes all the agenda items I can not say. I would think that it should include the items to be discussed at the meeting. I hope with this offer we can put this matter behind us.”
The board sent notices to The Lens for the next few months, but it has not done so since October.

When approached about the recurring lack of notice recently, Washington wrote that she was not aware of any agreement from June.

Two years ago, The Lens created a freelance corps of reporters to cover each of the city’s more than three dozen charter school boards. Timely notice of meetings is essential to coordinating this coverage. Many boards meet at times that aren’t convenient for working parents, and The Lens seeks to cover these meetings as a public service. For instance, the King board generally meets at noon on a weekday. Issues discussed at these meetings range from the mundane to the crucial, such as approving millions in spending each year, as well as regular updates to those budgets.

In Washington’s December exchange with the Lens reporter during the open meeting, she referred to activist Wheeler Hester being escorted by security from the meetings of the Orleans Parish School Board.

While Wheeler Hester is known for her sometimes-disruptive behavior, she frequently has valid points of order that public bodies recognize. For instance, she shut down a School Board meeting last year after pointing out that it had not given proper notice of its meeting.

And Washington likewise put a stop to a meeting of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission in January, saying the public agency didn’t provide proper notice of its meeting. In that case, though, the issue wasn’t advance notice, but completeness of the agenda.

The notices that are issued by the Friends of King don’t always make it easy for the public to attend. One notice said the meeting would take place at 1423 Philip St., which would be in the Garden District. In fact, the meeting was at Craig Elementary, at 1423 St. Philip St., in Treme.

The board’s next scheduled meeting is Tuesday. However, the notice on the board’s online calendar is equally confusing: Clicking on the map provided puts the location in Terrytown, at Christ the King Elementary School.