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NOCP’s vote to stay under RSD skirted Open Meetings Law

The board of New Orleans College Preparatory Academies voted to remain under the Recovery School District at its meeting Nov. 6, but there are questions as to whether the board complied with the state’s Open Meetings Law when it made its decision.

Although the vote was not on the agenda released in advance of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to add the item to the agenda, which is allowable under the state’s Open Meetings Law. However, the law says that no public body may “use its authority to take up a matter not on the agenda as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes” of the law.

Since board members knew in advance that they would be voting on this issue – they said so at their previous meeting – not having the item on the agenda released in advance of the meeting goes against the intent of the Open Meetings Law.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education outlined certain criteria whereby well-performing or well-improved schools can transfer out of the Recovery School District, and back under operation of the Orleans Parish School Board. Eligible charter schools are required to pass a motion to either stay under RSD or return to OPSB before the end of 2013.

CEO Ben Kleban said that, because only one of the organization’s schools, Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary, is currently eligible for return, it would make no sense for the organization to split the schools under different organizations. Neither Cohen College Prep nor Crocker College Prep Elementary, which the organization just took management of this year, are yet eligible for return.

OPSB Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Padian said a board’s decision to return to OPSB is supposed to be a public process, where community members can weigh in. She said that adding the item to the agenda meant that school stakeholders would not even know the vote was happening.

Kleban said the board had announced at its meeting in October that it would vote on the matter in November.

At October’s meeting, the board had announced it would hold any discussion of the decision to remain under RSD or return to OPSB via email. However, when the Lens requested copies of those emails, since they are public records subject to the states public records law, Kleban responded that no such emails existed.

Asked where the decision was made, and how the staff knew which resolution to bring before the board in that case, Kleban responded, “I don’t believe any of the board members found the idea of splitting our charters across different authorizers to be a viable solution requiring extensive consideration.”

The board also passed a new check-signatory policy, raising the limit to $35,000 before two signatures were needed on outgoing checks, and a limit of $100,000 for checks paid to Liberty’s Kitchen, Hammond Transportation and Blue Cross Blue Shield before two signatures are required. The policy also removes Kenneth Polite, former board member, as a signatory, and adds member Jim Raby and treasurer Andrew Goodwin. Kleban also is an authorized signatory.*

Kleban and board member Barbara McPhee said requiring a board member to sign off on checks was an unnecessary inconvenience for regular payments to major service providers. Murray Pitts voiced her support for the policy, saying that the limits were reasonable.

Goodwin stressed that the monthly financial statements would be reviewed by him and Lozada. Because NOCP does all of its business from a single bank account with spending limits on debit cards used by its staff, he said it would be easy to identify any improper spending by looking at the account activity.

Chair Peter Harding asked Padian what OPSB’s check signatory policy was. She said they have two signatures on every check, despite stacks of checks requiring signatures.

“Well, our contractors like to be paid on time,” Kleban said, looking at Padian.

The motion passed, with member Grisela Jackson voting against. She said her vote did not reflect any distrust for the organization itself, just a difference on policy.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Chief Operating Officer Kristen Lozada is authorized to sign checks. (Nov. 14, 2013.)

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