Lusher Charter School’s board held a heated meeting Saturday afternoon following teachers’ Tuesday decision not to unionize.
The disagreements started right away as member Chunlin Leonhard objected to a previous meeting’s written minutes considered for approval, a typically benign topic at board meetings.
After several minutes spent discussing what some members did and didn’t say, and what they meant or might have meant, the board approved the minutes as submitted.
The divisive tenor of that perfunctory action was just one symptom of the unrest within Lusher’s board for several weeks Few discussions in the meeting went off without criticism or accusations. Robert Morris at Uptown Messenger carried a live-blog as the meeting unfolded.
In late April, the board voted 6-5 not to voluntarily recognize the teachers union and a few days later passed a resolution to remain neutral on the topic. In turn, United Teachers of New Orleans requested the National Labor Relations Board organize a union election. Lusher’s administration then challenged the labor board’s authority over the charter school, seeking to prevent an election.
Board members charged Leonhard and Chairman Blaine Lecesne with failing to remain neutral for speaking out against the administration’s decision to challenge the labor board’s jurisdiction. The two were on the losing end of 6-5 vote.
After speaking about the upcoming year’s budget, Lecesne asked how much was set aside for legal fees. The answer was about $150,000.
Despite the teachers’ rejection of a union, eight members of the paraprofessional support staff voted separately in favor of a union. Five voted against. The board discussed continuing the challenge to federal labor jurisdiction versus the cost of negotiating a contract, which board attorneys said ran about $150,000 at Benjamin Franklin High School.
“It may actually be cheaper to contest jurisdiction than to get into collective bargaining with the 13 people,” member Rachel Wisdom said. “If it’s cheaper to fight jurisdiction, why shouldn’t we fight jurisdiction?”
Member Richard Cortizas said the conversation was best saved for a closed-door executive session, and several other members agreed.
Members raised their voices several times, with those in the 40-person audience also interjecting occasionally.
“I’m embarrassed,” member Paul Barron said. “I’m absolutely embarrassed by what has happened here today.”
Lecesne agreed on that point.
“I agree we should all be embarrassed,” he said.
Parent Becky Collins asked: “How do board members get terminated?”
The answer is in the bylaws, board members said, which they then promised to upload to the school’s website. Cortizas said board members themselves must vote to remove colleagues.
The board then decided to go into executive session to discuss strategy related to collective bargaining, a topic the law allows for.
The Lens objected to part of the session, having heard from the school’s attorney Angelina Christina the day prior that the board planned to discuss its response to public records requests from The Lens. Lens editor Steve Beatty told the board that’s not a topic covered by the open meetings law’s exceptions.
Board attorney Mag Bickford disagreed with Beatty’s classification. She said because the records involve collective bargaining, they could speak about them in closed session.
The Lens has asked for all emails among board members in recent months. Those communiques clearly will include the discussion of unionization efforts, but other topics may have been discussed which don’t enjoy such legal protection. The United Teachers of New Orleans, the union representing Lusher’s organizing faculty, has filed a similar public-records request, but it was more specific regarding emails about the union.
“I think the UTNO request clearly relates to collective bargaining,” Lecesne said. “I would urge out of an abundance of caution and respect that we refrain from discussion anything from the public records request from The Lens,” he said, noting board members are personally responsible for their participation.
“That’s a conversation for later,” Bickford said.
“I’m not going to submit myself personally for any violation for violating the public records law,” Lecesne said.
Member Paul Barron said the board could decide not to look at the records issue, or that members may heed Bickford’s advice and choose to take up the matter.
“And if we do, that’s why we have insurance,” he said. “And if you don’t want to talk about those things, you can take yourself out and leave.”
The board adjourned without any action after the hourlong executive session.