For a few days in August, seven of the nine Friends of King Schools board members attended a professional development retreat at a Biloxi casino. They met with their school leaders and heard a state representative speak about governance practices.

And they didn’t notify the public of their gathering – a violation of the state’s open meetings law.

But after a cursory inquiry and a puzzling interpretation of state law, the state Department of Education has concluded that the board is in the clear.

The Lens reported in November that the board participated in the retreat at the Beau Rivage without notifying the public. The state Department of Education later looked into the matter, though a spokesman wouldn’t say what spurred the inquiry.

Asked about the retreat, CEO Doris Roché-Hicks and board attorney Tracie Washington denied that a quorum had been present, Education Department spokesman Barry Landry said.

When presented with evidence to the contrary, Landry gave multiple answers that ran contrary to state law:

  • Told that a quorum of board members had booked rooms at the retreat hotel, Landry said the event was a social gathering, not a public meeting, and thus wouldn’t fall under open meetings law.

  • Provided a copy of the event’s agenda, which described several “in-service” sessions for board members, Landry offered another explanation: No votes were taken, so the retreat wasn’t considered a meeting.

That’s not what the state law says in the definition of a governmental meeting.

“Meeting” means the convening of a quorum of a public body to deliberate or act on a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power. It shall also mean the convening of a quorum of a public body by the public body or by another public official to receive information regarding a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said that the law is clear: “Just the fact that you are not voting is not the threshold.”

His group has issued guidelines on public meetings.

“The purpose of the law is to try to help build confidence with the public that the actions of a public body are transparent,” he said, “and they are not having secret meetings or making secret decisions.”

The Education Department’s apparent misreading of the law raises questions about whether charter schools are truly held accountable when they fail to follow open-government laws.

The state has outlined serious consequences for charter schools who violate their charter agreements. But only one charter board has been reprimanded for violating the state’s open meetings law: The board that runs New Beginnings Schools Foundation refused to allow parents to speak before voting on several issues at a June meeting.

The Lens frequently reports on charter boards’ violations of this law. The three-school Choice Foundation’s board, for example, failed to properly notify the public of its board meeting in August.

What the law requires

In addition to Scott’s organization, official opinions from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office make it clear: A public body cannot meet in private if a quorum is present and they discuss policies and matters under their control.

The Attorney General’s Office has held that the public-meetings law applies to workshops held by the Zachary City Council.

It reached the same conclusion regarding a retreat held by the East Jefferson General Hospital board, where the board and executive team would plan the future of the hospital.

And when a Lafayette official asked if the mayor could meet with the City Council in private to discuss goal-setting, the answer was no.

The Attorney General’s Office did say that the Shreveport City Council and mayor could participate in a private meeting to improve their relationships — as long as they didn’t talk about “business, goals, or plans.”

In addition to meeting in the open, public bodies must provide 24 hours’ notice before a meeting. They must provide the agenda to media who ask to be notified.

Friends of King did not issue such a notice of its August retreat to The Lens or, it appears, on its website. The retreat isn’t included in the organization’s list of open meetings for the year.

The Lens has complained to the board in the past about its failure to properly notify the public of its meetings.

What Friends of King did

Present at the retreat at the Beau Rivage were seven of the board’s nine members, the board’s attorney and almost all of the organization’s employees.

The stated goal, according to the agenda, was to “build a more engaged and technology advanced environment to improve teaching and learning for every student.”

The board participated in three “in-service” training sessions over a two-day period. Board members heard a presentation entitled “Legislative Advocacy: Education First” from State Rep. Wesley Bishop. They met with groups of employees from each of the organization’s two schools, including school leadership teams.

Bishop has said that he spoke to board members about board governance.

Friends of King board president Hilda Young and board attorney Tracie Washington, both of whom were at the retreat, did not respond to The Lens’ request for comment about the apparent violation of state law. Washington has said that she does not answer questions from The Lens.

Earlier, they provided the charter organization’s records for the retreat, which cost $70,000 and preceded a 2 percent pay cut at one of its schools.

Critic: State education department doesn’t know the law

Karran Harper Royal, who believes charter schools too often shut the public out of their decisionmaking, said the state department’s lack of action is troubling.

“It’s their job to know the law. It’s their job to have clear processes to ensure that charter schools are following the law,” Royal said. “To make such an ignorant statement — somebody’s head needs to roll.”

Posting notice of a board retreat is not unusual for other public boards. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education published notice of its annual retreat on its website at least four days in advance last year. At the August event, board members discussed meeting protocol, open meetings law and ethics laws.

The Orleans Parish School Board notified reporters in advance before a retreat in Houston where they received training on how to conduct board business and work together.

And though some charter schools have a spotty record of complying with public meetings and public records laws, the ones that follow the law provide notice of retreats like any other meeting.

Both of King’s schools, Joseph A. Craig Charter and Dr. King Charter, are members of the state’s charter school association, which specifically advises its membership that retreats are considered open meetings. It says open meetings law “will most likely apply to any and all board/committee ‘retreats.’”

Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley declined to comment. The last time she spoke with The Lens about Friends of King, the board discussed whether to sue her group.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...