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Lycée charter school pays attorneys thousands to deal with public records requests

Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans racked up $8,440 in legal fees over the course of one month — all for lawyers to respond to public records requests.

The 340-student French language charter school turned to the Adams and Reese law firm earlier this year after struggling to comply with Louisiana open records law.

Attorneys in January charged between $145 and $290 per hour for 38.3 hours of work they spent reviewing and responding to public records requests, according to a May invoice provided to The Lens.

Though the firm also represented the school for a short time in a lawsuit involving a former employee, that work will be billed to Lycée’s insurance provider and was not reflected in the invoice. New Orleans law firm Jackson Lewis is now representing Lycée in the lawsuit.

New Lycée board member Ben Castoriano, who works as an attorney at a different firm, said the school needed the legal guidance: “The lawyer we have worked with has been extremely helpful and during a very difficult time for the school.”

But a public records expert from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says it’s an expensive proposition, and bad practice, for public agencies to facilitate compliance with public records law.

“It seems like an outrageous policy that results in waste of taxpayer funds and undue delay,” said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for the organization.

It’s not that Lycée school officials never answered public records requests on their own.

In November, after $200,000 budget adjustment and sudden staff cuts, The Lens sought job descriptions, payroll records, professional service contracts and the school’s audit. Lycée board chairman Jean Montes responded the next day and set up a time for The Lens to view records.

But on Dec. 12, when The Lens requested a copy of the resume for newly hired interim CEO Gisele Schexnider, no one responded for six weeks.

Even after a Lens reporter handed Adams and Reese attorney Jaimmé Collins another copy of the public records request on Jan. 14, attorneys did not supply it until Jan. 25 — 44 days after the original request.

Louisiana public records laws requires agencies to provide access to public records “immediately” if they are not “in active use.” If they are being used, the custodian must notify the applicant and set a viewing time within three business days. Public agencies in New Orleans often don’t comply with this provision, however.

Lycée’s total bill from January came to $8,440. The school was charged an additional $875 for three hours of work attorneys Lee Reid and Collins performed in December to meet with Montes and review the board’s “open issues.”

Despite the price Lycee was expected to pay for these legal services, much of the advice that the school received appeared to be problematic — in some cases even contradictory. Though Adams and Reese attorney Lee Reid said attorney-client privilege prohibits him from commenting on the specifics of the work detailed in the total $9,000 bill, some of the dates listed on the May 16 invoice coincide with requests The Lens made.

By comparing The Lens’ records with the charges detailed by Adams and Reese, we found:

  • On Jan. 15 and 16, attorneys billed Lycée $2,491 for 11 hours attorneys spent reviewing records requests and drafting responses. On those same days, records show, Schexnider was notified by Audubon Charter School that someone had filed a request for records involving Schexnider being banned from Audubon’s campus when she was the parent of a student there.

Audubon officials sent a letter to Schexnider asking her if there was any reason why the school should not comply with the request. Collins, the attorney for Lycée, responded on Schexnider’s behalf and said the records should not be made public. Despite the request, Audubon ultimately released the records, which showed Schexnider had been banned in 2010 for threatening a student. (Schexnider later said the incident stemmed from her daughter being bullied.)

  • Between January 24 and 29, the firm billed the school $4,001 for 18.8 hours they spent reviewing, analyzing, and responding to records requests. That included a 12-minute phone call between an attorney and a Lens reporter that cost Lycée $38. The time period coincides with The Lens’ inquiries about severance pay and termination paperwork after an audit revealed former Lycée CEO Jill Otis was paid almost $30,000 after she resigned.

In February, within days of a publishing a story about that press release, The Lens obtained emails from a former Lycée board member showing that board members discussed by email with one another — and with their Adams and Reese attorney — whether to offer Otis some kind of severance. One of the email strings even had as its subject line: “Attorney Client privileged communication.”

When The Lens asked Adams and Reese about those emails, which indicated a violation of Louisiana open meetings laws, Collins responded, “Some of your questions solicit a response that would violate the Attorney-Client Privilege that is afforded Lycée Francais. We cannot violate its privilege by providing a response.”

Attorneys are hired to represent their clients’ interests, Caramanica said, and that doesn’t always align with the public interest. “The records custodian is supposed to be an advocate for the public,” he said.

Caramanica advises public agencies not lean on attorneys to fulfill record requests. It’s understandable to occasionally run particularly complex requests by lawyers, he said, but the school should be able to handle most requests in-house.

In an email to The Lens Friday, Montes, chairman of Lycée’s board, wrote that he asked the law firm to handle some requests to allow himself, and Lycée administration, time to focus on day-to-day operations of the school “without constant disruption, distraction and to make sure we are legal and lawful in handling the diverse public record requests Lycée has been subjected to.”

Montes confirmed Friday that he is the school’s custodian of records. But in January even that was in question. Collins, the Adams and Reese attorney, wrote in a Jan. 24 email to The Lens that a reporter’s December request for the same records was ‘invalid’ because “Mr. Montes is not the custodian nor does he have control of public records/documents that have been requested.”

Robert Rachal, an attorney who represents a group of parents who have criticized the board’s leadership, said Adams and Reese’s work was essential. But he also hopes the school can reduce its legal costs in the future.

“It was a necessary and useful expense to get them through a tough period and to fix the problems they were having,” said Rachal, whose clients in January were particularly concerned about the board’s lack of transparency.

Rachal said the amount billed was “certainly consistent with the work I saw being done.”

Lycée’s board now includes three lawyers; it is common for charter schools to utilize board members’ professional skills.

Reid continues to attend school board and committee meetings. He said the firm does pro bono work for the school, but it’s not clear what work has been for free.

When asked her opinion on the legal expenses, Lycée parent Paula Griffin told The Lens via email that she is disappointed that school received January’s bill so late. If that’s any indication of how much the school may be charged for the following months, she wrote, “we must ask the Board of Directors to reconsider their original agreement for legal services with Adams and Reese going forward.”

Another parent, Charles Varley, pointed the finger at Montes, outgoing board members and the administration, calling the legal expenses “the direct consequence of the incompetence and gross mismanagement of our school.”

“His, other board members’ and administration’s atrocious handling of affairs made it necessary to retain the services of an expert attorney and we all know that expert attorneys don’t come cheap,” Varley said.

All of this could have been avoided, he said, had the board “simply done things right in the first place.”

Lycée finance director Julianne Ruocco said the school is already over budget in the area of consultant services, which includes attorneys fees. It has not received any bills from Adams and Reese past those for January services, she said.

The school spent $105,991 of the budgeted $100,853 for consulting firms, including the legal bills, as of May 31. Besides legal work, that part of the budget also goes toward fundraising, development projects, school software and bank service charges.

Despite that overspending, Ruocco said this week that she still projects Lycée’s budget will have an overall surplus when the fiscal year ends June 30.

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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.

  • ET

    This article is very good. And, Mr. Caramanica is spot on. He should be hired to train our new board members. Montes/McPhail/Saleun have been so disturbed by public criticism that they went to extremes to make sure they were individually separated and removed from any fracas. They got rid of administrators and teachers who were pointing out shortcomings of the board. They hired a “ceo” to create distance from the teachers they hated (the teachers spoke out about defending their duties). All this is to show that the hiring of all the lawyers and spending public funds on lawyers was entirely done to shield these three people. the lawyers were never needed. They just went along billing by the hour. The board should hire a new FRESH firm from now on on a simple retainer or some such.

  • nickelndime

    “…bad practice, for public agencies to rely on attorneys to facilitate compliance with public records law, says Mark Caramanica of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.” It is also a bad and expensive practice for attorneys (i.e., Lee Reid – Adams and Reese LLP) to conduct internal investigations into cheating allegations (as in the OPSB charter school Moton) as well. If anyone/including THE LENS requests to inspect the public records of any charter school/nonprofit board that is represented by Adams and Reese, LLP, it will always be “facilitated” in their law offices, not at the school/nonprofit board location. Happily, Marta has followed up on this “money” trail. How about NOMMA and Einstein? Adams and Reese is on speed dial (just to name 2 other nonprofits).

  • Nola

    Wow! over 8 thousand dollars just for reviewing records for FOIA requests. I can’t wait to see how much the Attorney bills will be for running every board meeting, commitee meeting and PTO meeting for the past 6 months. All of that money is money NOT being spent on children in the class room. There is something very wrong with this.

  • Joy Van Buskirk

    This is what happens when lay boards run a public school – no accountability, and misuse of taxpayer monies – eight thousand and change for January’s legal eagle fees. Hate to see the bills for February, March, April and May. This is why charter school boards need responsible and effective training to ensure the proper use of taxpayer monies for the children attending these schools. There is no excuse for a board and its administration not to be able to provide documents in response to a FOIA request. That should be standard business practice. The Lycee problem – lack of organization within the school office/records, and board minutes. Board minutes were not available most months to reflect actions that were taken by the board. The board ignored, for the most part, making motions, and taking votes on required issues. Hence, confusion, frustration and an inability to follow through on FOIA requests. It is my hope that with a new board and CEO/administrative team these problems will be ameliorated. I can only hope.

  • nickelndime

    THIS ! is what happens when lay nonprofit boards (filled with attorneys and mo’ attorneys – it’s called “inbreeding”) (e.g., LYCEE’ – ACSA – EINSTEIN – MOTON – EASTBANK COLLABORATIVE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS… – all of whom pay Adams and Reese LLP for representation – not counting Adams and Reese PAC and its individual attorneys who contribute to OPSB elections – oh well, the Moran connection didn’t exactly pan out, but…) overpay legal eagles – no chickens – with millions of dollars in public money (and overpay CEOs who answer to the legal eagle/chicken first). Pay attention, Marta. Don’t look at the lines – look at the picture. Look at the charter schools and nonprofits where the public is not showing up and ask why NOT. THE LENS is already covering some of these board meetings – maybe not all – but Marta, you are covering some of them. Ask “what looks too good to be true,” and then see if you can uncover why. Reid consistently shows up at OPSB meetings (it’s called “seeding” – in as much we seem to be talking about birds) and speaks on behalf of a number of entities, including but not limited to Lusher, the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools (and its constituency). Reid has financial investments to protect and has the ear of the State/LDOE – RSD – White/Dobard – Hunnewell – Roemer Shirley – BESE. Paul G. Pastorek was a partner at Adams and Reese. Who do you think prepared the Type 2 charter application for the NOMMA?!! LOL and rolling on the floor – Reid does not know the meaning of “pro bono.”

  • Nola

    The only thing I see here that bothers me is the regular and obvious disrespect of Chickens. They are noble birds! Maybe we could call the Legal Eagles mahogany bugs instead…(smile).

  • nickelndime

    St. Francis of Assisi, I am not, but a lover of all creatures I am (except, there are a few humans I take issue with). Having said that, I express my opinions. “Legal eagles” is like an oxymoron. Although I have not been close to eagles (and who has?), I have much experience with chickens. Their behavior has been described as “ruthless.” From some of the things I have seen, humans may describe it as ruthless, but no more so that in other species in survival mode. And, most of us are familiar with certain expressions, e.g., “sly as a fox,” “you snake!” you weasel!… If somebody refers to someone as an eagle, that is usually taken to be a compliment. But if somebody calls you a chicken, that’s different. In referring to Adams and Reese attorneys, particularly Lee Reid, I was making a negative comment – not about chickens, but about Lee Reid. That’s funny!