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Lycée appears to skirt open meetings laws while picking board candidates

Amid its efforts to create a more transparent and accountable governing board, Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans charter school officials on Monday night engaged in activities that lawyers say appear to subvert Louisiana’s open meetings laws.

The school has taken the bold step of rebuilding its board, requiring all current board members to resign effective June 30.

But as a five-person committee met this week to narrow down a list of 29 candidates to replace them, a consultant hired to help in that process made it clear he’d already privately polled each of the committee members as to their top picks and pared that list down to 15.

Attorneys familiar with Louisiana open meetings law said the process sounds like it was devised to skirt a law that starts, “No person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents, except in cases established by law.”

If so, this could mark the third time in the last year Lycée’s board has operated in a manner that does not appear to comply with state law.

Jeremy Hunnewell of EMH Strategy on Monday presented the list of 15 names that, he said, were most popular with committee members when they were asked — in private emails and phone calls — to list their top 20.

“I’m kind of thrilled by the manner of agreement,” committee member Robert Bell remarked during the meeting after Hunnewell scribbled the names of the first round picks on a white board during the public meeting — without sharing publicly who was not picked.

Hunnewell said seven of the top 15 people were picked by all five committee members in his private exchanges with them; another seven people were listed by four members; and one person was selected by three.

Before they voted to accept the names, Lee Reid, an attorney for Lycée’s board, told committee members that they could add any one else to the slate. “Is there anyone missing on the list you feel really strongly about?” he asked.

No one responded with any objections. And with little discussion, the committee voted to approve the list of finalists.

Problematic deliberations?

New Orleans attorney Loretta Mince, whose specialties include media law, said on Tuesday that the series of events appears problematic in the face of laws that require public bodies deliberate in public.

“If the committee members were asked to rank or vote for their top picks out of the 29,” Mince wrote in an email to The Lens, “and those rankings or vote were used to compile the list of 15, and eliminate the other 14 from consideration, then I believe that would constitute a proxy voting procedure, secret balloting, or any other means to circumvent the intent of the Open Meetings Law.”

Louisiana’s Attorney General issued an opinion in October related to the use of email to solicit the opinions from members of a state or local governing body. In it, Buddy Caldwell writes that open meetings law “prohibits questioning a majority of a public body on how each member intends to vote, whether such an inquiry is called a poll or not.”

Hunnewell and Lee Reid, an attorney for Lycée’s board, defended the process as being well within bounds of the law.

“I couldn’t ask them who they were going to vote for,” Hunnewell said. “But it’s ok for me to ask them, ‘Who do you like?’”

“We also wanted to be in a position where we weren’t asked to say anything negative about anyone,” Hunnewell said.

But Aaron Mackey, an attorney for Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that concern alone isn’t enough to merit skirting the requirement that such deliberations occur in public. While there may have been no intention to hide the information, he said, the end result is that a portion of the governing process was concealed.

“This is one action along a continuum that will lead to a person holding a public position,” said Mackey, “All of those processes should be transparent.”

Though the board members had access to the full list of 29 applicants prior to the meeting, none of that information was shared during the meeting. And hardly any applicant names were discussed — not even Lycée’s board Chairman Jean Montes, the only current board member who reapplied for a spot.

After the committee meeting adjourned, The Lens requested information on all applicants. Hunnewell responded to that request by email an hour after the meeting ended.

“Understanding who remains on that list and who doesn’t is an important governmental function,” Mackey said before referencing a Louisiana court ruling from 1981 that deals with a similar situation.

Baton Rouge case bears similarity

In that case, a state appellate court ruled that a committee of the East Baton Rouge School Board violated open meetings laws after they met in executive session and reduced 41 school board administrator applicants down to 10 semi-finalists.

In that instance, the committee members each wrote on a piece of paper their top 10 picks. The 10 candidates who received the most slips of paper were given a chance to interview. The committee used a similar process a couple weeks later, narrowing the field down again to four.

In both cases, the board finalized its decisions during an open meeting as Lycée did, cutting applicants from consideration in a public vote. But the court still ruled that the process by which the lists were narrowed violated Louisiana’s open meetings requirements.

During that case, the defendants also argued that board members had the opportunity in the public meeting to add or subtract names from consideration. The court determined that wasn’t enough to satisfy the law.

“The trial court, while acknowledging the committee members’ good faith belief that their actions were not final, found that these actions constituted a vote, the practical effect of which was to reduce the number of people under active consideration and to in effect eliminate all but those ten, and then four, applicants named after each of the executive sessions,” the appeals court opinion reads. “The evidence clearly supports this finding.”

The court also gave little value to the argument that vetting the candidate in public could cause the candidates humiliation or embarrassment.

“In all selection processes, there are winners and losers; those who are chosen and those who are not,” the court opinion said. “While those who are not chosen might naturally be more comfortable with a private display of the relative support each obtained, we believe that promoting the public policy of openness mandated by this law is far more important to our society as a whole than is the avoidance of whatever slight discomfort, if any, might occur to an individual applicant.”

Asked about that case on Tuesday, Reid said the circumstances here are “much different than the case law you cite.”

“We disagree with the way you have characterized the activities undertaken by Jeremy and the Nominating Committee,” Reid wrote in an email. “We believe that getting feedback from the Committee Members, compiling that information and reporting that feedback in an open meeting for discussion by the committee and the public complies with the Open Meetings Laws.”

Prior problems

This is not the first time Lycée’s leaders have had to answer questions about their legal obligation to conduct business in the public eye.

Last month, Montes conceded in an email to The Lens that his board had violated open meetings laws when it discussed in emails with one another how to force founding principal and CEO Jill Otis from her post.

And in December, the board adjourned its formal meeting, kicked out media and “anybody who is not connected with the family” of Lycée, and asked upset parents to remain in the room to discuss matters involving the school’s leadership and governance with the three members of the board who remained.

That closed-door session followed a 45-minute, open meeting during which board members voted 6-0, with little discussion, to “ratify” an earlier hiring an interim CEO.

Actions like these prompted Hunnewell’s involvement at the school in the first place. The management consultant was hired to help the school shore up its leadership and governance after state schools Superintendent John White asked the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools to help the school out of a tumultuous time. The charter schools association tapped Hunnewell.

It was Hunnewell who last month formally identified the school’s need for a new a new board and CEO in a report that recommended the very creation of this nominating committee charged with finding new board members.

Still, Hunnewell, said his actions did not subvert the law. “They simply added me to that process to speed it along,” said Hunnewell.

On Tuesday, Reid said The Lens’ questions would prompt some board action, however.

“So that your article does not make anyone in the Lycée community uncomfortable with the process,” Reid wrote, the committee members will, “confirm their individual feedback” during their April 2 meeting — when they are expected to start interviewing board candidates —  and state the names of the people they wish to interview.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote. Committee member Robert Bell said, “I’m kind of thrilled by the manner of agreement.” It was not spoken by committee chairman Jeff Teague. Also, Bell’s name was originally misspelled. The story has been updated to reflect those corrections.

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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.

  • nickelndime

    BRAVO, THE LENS!!! Lee Reid is at it again. This is not the first time. Only this time, his actions are being scrutinized and the hard questions are being asked. This reporter is really doing a great job.

  • Nola

    Lee, saying it is legal, does not make it legal. Good try though. Hopefully, LFNO will discuss the budget at the next borad meeting as well. It has been about 3 months since we have been informed about how our tax money is being spent.

  • frenchfriend

    Lee Reid appears to be the unofficial head of lycee. Is there a gag order on Montes? He is still officially the president of this board. That is not saying much, but at least, it does not cost the school money. I hope the lens does a records requests to inquire how much money this school is paying Reid and where in the budget it is coming from. Last time this school posted a budget it had NO reserve. This is public money that is to go towards educating the kids of lycee and should not be used for paying lawyers. This must be why they have no supplies at school. Maybe they are borrowing from next year, hoping they won’t have a mass exodus? This Exodus is happening and the money for lycee is going to very tight next year ( even with the CODIFIL political deal to insure teachers at Lycee) If this school wants to stay afloat, even with a new Board and CEO, they should be very careful.
    Parents need to keep their eyes open too. The Lycee charter calls for a partnership with McMillian and that is not being upheld, so why uphold keeping this school French? Seems the charter can change or be ignored at the drop of a hat. If the French program can’t pay the rent or show good academic outcomes, the board could just ignore this section of the charter too and turn it into basic full or half day immersion school. Isn’t that what sweet olive and the current board did with McMillian? This experiment is getting quite interesting. Too bad kids are part of it.

  • nickelndime

    When was Adams and Reese LLP hired to represent the board (originally, Jaime Collins, then Lee Reid – the more expensive Lee Reid)? And who advised Montes and the board in the past? Lee Reid has put a gag order of sorts on this group (and the State is aware of it). They are counting on him. Montes is Haitian and he may have made some mistakes in the past, but he understands gag orders. Great posts, frenchfriend and Nola!

  • Joy Van Buskirk

    I wish that i could say that I am not surprised about the latest Lycee snafu in dealing with the open meetings law. Adams and Reese have been the sole legal representatives for troubled charter schools for years, and it is apparent that ignoring the law is part of their modus operandi. This firm fits in so well with Jindal, White, and the LSDE. After reading the posted comments, I too wonder how much money this legal representation will take out of LFNO’s classrooms. Hopefully, questioning parents will ask that very important question. I expect a law firm to operate according to state law, and abide by the state’s constitution. Clearly that is too much to ask of this law firm.

  • Yoy Lord

    WHY O’ WHY do the ones calling the shots at Lycee feel the need to hide everything they do? There
    must be so much to cover up that it is impossible to decide what can be shared in an open forum and what should be hidden. With a law firm in charge, it is not surprising that the first action is to hide everything until someone tells them they have to provide information.

    Thank you frenchfriend, Nola, nickelndime, and Joy Van Buskirk for asking the question about the budget report and when we will get answers about who is really paying the bill for all of the recent activities. I can’t wait to see how they hide how much and where money is going. It has to be huge amounts of tax payers’ dollars being spent. I asked the budget question in a post under the article “Lycee Board Vote Sets the Stage for Sweeping Leadership Change” by Marta Jewson, reported March 12, 2013. It is now time we get answers to the question.

    A final question, “Why O’ Why do we need a puppet board? We have Adams & Reese, John White, BESE
    and Hunnewell running Lycee.

  • ET

    Reid either has no understanding of public school regulations/laws, or he is intentionally subverting the process for his client’s special agenda. He should not be involved – he gives bad advice, often. The school needs a qualified attorney, quick. he has previously given the school board very bad advice. give him the boot.

    He is not the ‘head’ (he does not have the brains) but his client certainly is and maybe the big troika (Montes-McPhaile-Saluen) are still pulling the strings.

  • frenchfriend

    WHY O’ Why do we need them? They think they are hiding the “troika”, but we are not stupid and we have made such strides already. It is not over yet either.
    Mcphaille is still in the picture and is having to be less quiet than before. She probably will continue to manage behind the scenes, as long as, her kids are at lycee, Don’t worry though because there are some strong good parents who are watching and can’t be fooled.
    This “troika” needs to make sure this school keeps its white demographic and exclusive ( which seems more important to the “troika” than the lycee’s reputation) We can’t underestimate the two board members in “gag” mode either. Yes, the three are still working behind the scenes. Does it really matter if Paige is on the board or not? Look at her history and what she did to others before Lycee . As far as I know, she was not a board member at those other schools. All we can do is watch from within and continue to call out their unethical behavior. Lets not forget Sweet Olive too.

  • nickelndime

    “Subversive Activities As It Relates to the Operation of Public Charter Schools in Louisiana,” OR “How to Appear Legal in Complex Academic Environments.” Reid wrote “the book,” (Ha!), but the “team” has their own chapters (i.e., Hunnewell – “The Public Charter Board – How to Avoid the Demands of Open Meetings Laws”). This is serious, folks, I know, but this entire group should have dossiers developed on their activities, and it has been going on for a couple of years now. Think about this. Adams and Reese (Pastorek’s former law firm) formed the nonprofit (it is their baby) that opened and operates the Type 2 charter school, NOMMA. Recently, the business manager at NOMMA “allegedly” took $31,000 of the school’s operating money, and it was not uncovered by the administrator who runs the school. The auditors discovered it.

  • nickelndime

    Who is NOT on the Hunnewell-Reid-Nominating Committee/Team “List of Prospective Board Members, or Who Survived the CUT?” (short and long list)? These are the ones the “team” is not comfortable with – the ones who would question what is going on, not adhere to Reid’s gag orders, speak out, “think”… (and that’s why these individuals would be a threat to the State, LDOE, BESE, Roemer Shirley, White, Hunnewell, Reid…) and precisely the reasons why they were excluded – didn’t make the list!

  • frenchfriend

    Adams and Reese, Justin Schmidt was the first attorney for Lycee. Isn’t he Mchphaile’s personal attorney too? Always thought this because he is always in front of the city council arguing building permits and such. Maybe he can’t represent them personally and as board members. Don’t know the law.

  • nickelndime

    You know enough, frenchfriend, to be considered dangerous to this group of subversive individuals. For one, you read. #2 You ask questions. #3 You make comments. #4 You are thinking. #5 You have knowldege of other public bodies… (Ha!) And for the record, Lee Reid represents (legal fees) the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools (which counts 12-13 OPSB charter schools in its circle and charges money for membership). And although Reid is not “paid” to represent Lusher, he frequently appears at OPSB meetings and postures in front of “the board” if they consider/deliberate/question anything that appears threatening to either the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools (nonprofit that Kathy Riedlinger is president of) or Lusher (Riedlinger is CEO at a annual salary of a quarter of a million). And if anybody says that there is no money in education, then they do not know what they are looking at (which includes many individuals on OPSB and RSD nonprofit charter boards).