Lycée leaders to meet with French council amid parent concerns

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Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans charter school officials announced Monday they will meet with the organization that supplies French teachers to the school, amid concerns about the relationship between the two organizations.

Worried parents questioned the Lycée board’s commitment to the French national curriculum at a special meeting Monday night. Board members reassured the crowd that the school is devoted to offering students both an American diploma and French Baccalaureate.

“There are allegations swirling that we’re going to lose a substantial number of our teachers,” parent Charles Varley told the board. Varley asked for reassurance from the board that the French curriculum would be maintained.

“Parents and teachers have been told that French accreditation has taken a lower priority,” said parent Stuart McClure.

The questions came during a meeting called for management consultant Jeremy Hunnewell to present the board with his recommendations to improve school management and governance.

Following turmoil in the fall, including a $200,000 budget cut, several lay-offs and the resignation of the school’s second leader in two years, State Superintendent John White intervened.

White called in the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, who arranged for Hunnewell of EMH Strategy to help the school assess its management issues and find a permanent chief executive officer.

Hunnewell’s report calls for a new school leader and changes on the board. His recommendations included a job description for a new CEO and a hiring timeline.

The board unanimously accepted the plan, with only minor modifications at the request of board member Dan Henderson.

Henderson wanted to change a statement that read, “The most critical issue is that the school has not had, nor does the school currently have, the appropriate school leader.”

He asked that the board amend it to read only that “the school does not have an appropriate leader” to avoid any judgment of past principals.

But while Hunnewell begins forming a three-person search committee for the new CEO, parents minds were still on French accreditation and French teachers.

Lycée leaders will meet in the next week with The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) which works with Lycée to provide French nationals trained in the French curriculum to teach at the school, Hunnewell said.

“I doubt that Lycée has the financial means to hire immigration attorneys who approve French national teachers certified without CODOFIL,” proclaimed McClure, “We don’t have the financial wherewithal.”

Board Chairman Jean Montes initially responded to parent concerns about the French curriculum by reading the school’s mission statement, which emphasizes the opportunity for students to earn the French baccalaureate.

Hunnewell said while retaining CODOFIL teachers isn’t critical, he thinks if the school were to hire its own teachers from France the process would be be too complicated and expensive.

Hunnewell said they would have a conversation about his recommendations and what they entail for each entity.

“I think it’s important that we retain the French teachers,” said Hunnewell.

Hunnewell said several stakeholders will attend the meeting, including CODOFIL, the Lycée board, and the French consulate. Many feel it is important the school maintain good relationships with CODOFIL the school since CODOFIL places French educated teachers at Lycée while also handling periphery issues like work visas.

Rafael Gang, chief of staff at the state education department’s Office of Portfolio, was present at the meeting and said he would also attend the meeting with CODOFIL.

“It’s a committee to look at the future and figure out how we can partner,” said Gang, “to figure out how we can move forward together.”

While some parents struggled with the assurance of French curriculum, others were concerned about board governance. They eagerly listened to Hunnewell’s recommendations. Board members actually responded to some questions, something they haven’t always been keen to do in the past.

“We didn’t have a finance committee,” Hunnewell acknowledged as he laid out his suggestions.

Hunnewell and Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, both emphasized the need for committees.

“The work of the board should be done in committees,” said Hunnewell

Roemer Shirley explicitly addressed the importance of transparency and following open meeting law within those committees.

“Committee work is not done in back rooms, committees fall under that transparency and public meeting law,” said Roemer Shirley.

With a motion on the table to form a governance committee and allow board president Jean Montes to appoint members a few parents voiced concerns.

“We have lost faith that things will be done in a fair and open way,” said Robin Young, whose son attends Lycée.

In January, Young signed an eight-page letter as part of the Rebuilding Trust Working Group. The letter called for changes in school governance, including the recusal of board members Montes and Paige Saleun as they are both defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed by a former teacher.

Young was concerned the board had become so insular, that external influence would be a necessity in the search for new members. She expressed admiration for members’ hard work, but pleaded that they bring in outside help.

“I really urge that we have some kind of third party or outside help in selecting our new board members,” she asked.

Montes asked that Hunnewell, Roemer Shirley, and Gang serve as ex-officio members on the governance committee. All three ensured they would continuing working with the board. Montes appointed board members Catherine MacPhaille and Joel Vilmenay to the committee.

Hunnewell recommended working with LAPCS’s Top Shelf program. A board member placement program that helps identify and prepare potential board members for charter school boards. Board members were open to the arrangement and Roemer Shirley vowed her program continue working with the board.

Parent Larisa Diephuis called for a renewed search for the academic director position. She was concerned with the board’s rapid hiring of Gisele Schexnider in November, as Montes hired her prior to a board vote.

“The most important thing is for a school leader to have confidence trust and loyalty among his or her staff,” said Henderson after the meeting.

Henderson said the discussion of whether or not to reopen the academic director position would have to come from the new school leader.

Even though the report suggested a change of guard may be necessary once a school is up and running, it isn’t clear what that will mean for current board members.

*Saleun, one of the founding board members, said her terms ends June 30, 2014. When asked later by e-mail whether she plans to serve out that term, Saleun did not give a clear yes or no, but said she will defer to the consultants’ recommendations.

Saleun would not comment on The Rebuilding Trust Working Group’s calls for her to recuse herself from the board amidst a charter defamation lawsuit from a former teacher.

Board members Montes, Saleun, Henderson, Jacqueline Simon and Catherine MacPhaille were present for the meeting. Member Joel Vilmenay was absent. Board member Hema Banagada reportedly resigned in recent weeks. The meeting began at 6:38 p.m. and adjourned at 7:40 p.m.

Montes said the date for the governance committee had not been decided yet. The board will meet again on March 11.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that board member Paige Saleun said she intended to serve out her term through 2014. In an email to The Lens on Wednesday, Saleun said The Lens was mistaken on that point. This story reflects that change.

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