Lycée Français paid more than $40,000 in legal fees over 2012-13 school year

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Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans shelled out more than $40,000 to a law firm for handling public records requests and general advice — something board members say was necessary to guide the embattled charter school through a tumultuous seven months.

The bulk of $40,329.99 paid to Adams and Reese LLP during the 2012-2013 school year was for “general advice,” Lycée’s board chairman Tim Gray said.

Gray said that between Feb. 1 and May 31 Adams and Reese billed the school $28,924.99 for 107.5 hours of work under “general advice.” He said that included help with board governance, employment issues, immigration issues and contracts.

Lycée also paid more than $10,000 to the law firm for responding to public records requests.

The Lens first reported on Lycée’s expensive practice in June. That was after a May invoice revealed the school racked up $8,440 in legal charges in January alone by outsourcing public records requests to the law firm.

The school was charged an additional $2,090 for 9.1 hours of work related to public records requests in a bill that included work in March, April and May, Gray said. He said there was no public records bill for February.

The 340-student French curriculum school had a rocky year after a budget shortfall last fall, the unexpected firing of several staff and the resignation of its second CEO in just eight months.

As the school community struggled to regroup, Lycée’s administration also struggled to comply with the open meetings and public records law. And the board eventually hired Adams and Reese.

When The Lens requested recently hired Academic Director Gisele Schexnider’s resume in December, it was not provided until 44 days later in late January, well beyond the three days allowed by state law.

The board also skirted the state’s open meetings law, at one point formally adjourning a board meeting, strategically dismissing members to drop below a quorum and kicking reporters out. The remaining members of the board then continued to meet with some people from the community.

A group of parents criticized the board’s lack of transparency in a January letter that also called for the resignation of two board members involved in a lawsuit.

The school has since hired a new CEO and has an entirely new board, but as the fiscal year closed out last week, the school is still waiting on an invoice from June.

At a budget hearing Monday, the board and administrative leadership discussed how much money to budget in legal fees for next year. And that’s when the public heard the number.

“We spent about $45,000 last year and are providing for $25,000 in this proposal,” said Julianne Ruocco, the school’s director of finance and operations.

Gray suggested that number be lowered to $15,000, or even $10,000 for the 2013-2014 school year.

Stacked with three attorneys, Lycée’s board may be able to help the school defray some legal costs, said Gray, an attorney himself. Members Ben Castoriano and Alysson Mills also are attorneys.

“Ben, Alysson and I are trying to do everything we can to avoid going to outside counsel unless it’s really necessary,”  Gray said in a phone call Tuesday.

He said the school would begin to handle public records requests internally.

“We will do that in-house absent some extraordinarily complex question,” said Gray.

“The point is to be as transparent as we can,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have some arbitrary timetable where we’re going to make people wait.”

All in all the school spent about $45,000 on legal services, Ruocco said. Of that total, $5,000 was a deductible for coverage in a lawsuit brought against the school and board members Jean Montes and Paige Saleun, whose terms ended on June 30.

Robert Rachal, an attorney who worked with the group of concerned parents said the costs weren’t alarming given the amount of work that was done. “It doesn’t strike me as out of line given all the legal work to get through the transition.”

Rachal said he hoped having three lawyers on the board would prove to be advantageous. “They’ll be donating, effectively, some of their legal services to help them with the routine legal work.”

Rachal said the previous year “was unusual and hopefully a one-time thing.”

Gray said the attorney’s work was needed during the last year but he hopes to keep legal costs under $10,000 next year.

“I think for a charter school with three lawyers on the board, we should be able to handle most of the day-to-day things.”

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