New Beginnings school board stifles public comment prior to lengthy executive session

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New Beginnings School Foundation teachers and staff crowded into a room for the second time in two weeks for a special board meeting that was expected to include a closed-door discussion of two top administrators.

And though some of the onlookers said they came to speak during the Thursday meeting, the board’s chairman guided the board from one vote to another without inviting public comment prior to votes as Louisiana law requires.

New Beginnings operates four charter schools: Gentilly Terrace, Pierre Capdau, Medard Nelson elementary schools and Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

The board originally planned to hold an executive session to discuss CEO Sametta Brown and Executive Director of Support Services Patricia Ventura.

But that plan changed without explanation when the board voted to remove discussion of Ventura’s position from the agenda.

The most recent development came two weeks after a May 24 committee meeting that screeched to a halt when Ventura asked the board members to discuss her employment in public.

About 25 onlookers came that time and a handful of them spoke in support of Ventura. Rumors were circulating that her job was on the line.

As the board meeting began, board chairman Tim Ryan asked for public comment after offering a few remarks. No one spoke up.

Ryan did not offer any other opportunity for public discussion in the course of the meeting, despite the fact that the board voted numerous times throughout the nearly four-hour meeting.

State law requires school boards to take public comment prior to every agenda item for which a vote will be taken:

Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, each school board … shall allow public comment at any meeting of the school board prior to taking any vote. The comment period shall be for each agenda item and shall precede each agenda item … A comment period for all comments at the beginning of a meeting shall not suffice to meet the requirements…

The crowd grew visibly frustrated at times during the meeting, eager to interject as administration discussed high staff turnover and the process by which contracts were renewed.

Contracts were a particularly sensitive subject as two of four network school principals resigned with only weeks left in the school year.

“Do we have any other questions or comments about that?” Ryan asked.

Mildred Labostrie, whose granddaughter will be in second grade next year at Gentilly Terrace, thought he was posing the question to the public.

She began to speak up to address the board.

Ryan interjected, “I’m sorry we had our time for public comment, we can’t have the public participate in the board meeting. I apologize, I’m sorry about that, but we have to do it that way.”

“I know you said you can’t hear my comment, OK,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said.

Their voices escalated as they talked over one another.

Labostrie objected, saying that at the time he called for comment, the board hadn’t yet started talking about the topic she wanted to speak to.

“But you didn’t address it at the appropriate time, you don’t have an opportunity to address it now. I’m sorry,” said Ryan. “We can address it at the next board meeting.”

Labostrie stormed out, granddaughter in tow.

As the board prepared to move into executive session, Ryan asked if there were any objections. Hearing none from the board, he immediately asked everyone to leave the room.

A reporter from The Lens attempted to clarify which exception to the open meetings law the board was citing as its reason for closing the doors on the public.

“No, you can come talk to me if you like privately,” Ryan told the reporter from across the room, “Public comment was over.”

The Lens reporter said that the board must take public comment before each action item.

“No you don’t,” Ryan said of the meeting rules. “What do you want?”

The reporter asked whether Brown had been notified 24 hours in advance of the discussion of her employment as required by law, and if she chose to have the meeting behind closed doors.

“Yes. Yes.” said Ryan.

“She’s here, she’s saying yes,” said member April Bedford as Brown nodded from her seat next to her.

As the reporter and other members of the public filed out of the room, Ryan and the reporter continued their exchange.

“You don’t have to take public comment on every motion,” Ryan said.

Teachers Hallie Hargett and Elizabeth Brogan told The Lens that they would have spoken up early in the meeting had they known the call for comments at the beginning of the meeting would be their only chance.

The two were among several staff members who waited in the hallway for more than two hours while the board met behind closed doors.

“Why would you have public comments before anything on the agenda has been addressed?”  said Hargett, who taught first grade teacher at Gentilly Terrace during 2012-13. “It’s not fair.”

Brogan, who also taught at Gentilly Terrace during the past school year, shared Hargett’s sentiments.

“I would have liked to have commented several times after things were said,” said Brogan, “and I never had that opportunity.”

Brogan stressed she wanted to respect the board’s time and offer relevant comments, which is why she said she didn’t speak up at the beginning of the meeting before any agenda items had been addressed.

“It’s confusing,” Brogan said of public comment policy, as she waited for the board to reconvene. “I’m definitely interested in looking into what the actual laws are for open meetings.”

And she did, reading excerpts from the state’s Open Meetings Law on her iPhone as she sat in the hallway.

When the board reconvened in open session, about 10 employees filed into the boardroom, joining board members. Ryan said there was no action necessary as a result of the executive session.

“At this point . . . I’ll entertain a motion to adjourn,” he said.

“So moved,” said Bedford, and the motion was seconded.

“Any opposition?” asked Ryan.

There was none.

He did not ask for public comment.

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