Hundreds of emails among Lusher Charter School board members reveal just how deeply divided the board and community were this spring when teachers tried to unionize.
The emails, released to The Lens in response to public records requests, show board members attacking one another, calling on the board president to step down for his treatment of CEO Kathy Riedlinger, and arguing over whether she had overstepped her authority in fighting the union.
The emails offer a window into the board’s struggle to guide one of New Orleans’ premier public charter schools during the union drive. They also raise questions about whether the board circumvented the Open Meetings Law.
One exchange shows how heated things got.
Three days before they were set to consider the union’s request for recognition, board President Blaine LeCesne forwarded the board a message from a parent urging him to vote yes.
Riedlinger responded to the group that the parent had been “manipulated.” It was “unconscionable,” she continued, for LeCesne to forward that message to the board “in an attempt to show you that you should recognize the union.”
LeCesne responded that her “over the top and misplaced reaction is precisely why the Board members need to be able to communicate amongst ourselves.”
Board member Kiki Huston came to Riedlinger’s defense. “Kathy is distraught, your reply to her shows no empathy or understanding,” she wrote.
“The allegations are swirling that you, Blaine – our board president and once Kathy’s closest ally – has had a large role in getting the union to this stage,” she continued. “I will not argue as to whether these allegations have any basis in fact, but your actions and words suggest that you are not willing to work [with] the administration on this.”
Unionization move puts pressure on board
The emails show that the board was practically consumed by the union drive, with messages going back and forth throughout the day and late into the night. They used two email groups, one for the board only and another that included some administrators.
The pressure started as soon as teachers sent the board a request on April 8 to recognize the union at the board’s meeting later that month. Board members circulated legal advice on union activity, started looking for a lawyer, and set up meetings with union organizers and opponents.
Parents and others in the community weighed in on how they should vote. One board member asked the others if she could talk to a longtime friend on the “non-union side.” One said yes; another cautioned against it.
The pressure quickly took its toll. Board members argued over things that seemed simple, like how they should go about hiring a lawyer.
LeCesne told board members that someone had filed public-records requests for emails between him, his wife and certain Lusher teachers, many of them union supporters. His wife was an assistant principal at the school; she’s now at Einstein Charter Schools.
“This is clearly intended to harass and intimidate,” he wrote.
Board member Chunlin Leonhard penned an opinion piece for Uptown Messenger in which she all but endorsed the union drive.
Board Secretary Rachel Wisdom told the rest of the board that Leonhard had undermined the board’s neutral position in the election. In a point-by-point rebuttal, Leonhard insisted she had merely expressed her personal views.
Casey Hurstell, a Lusher employee and Riedlinger’s niece, claimed pro-union teacher Larissa Gray had “body checked” her at a board meeting.
LeCesne said the accusation was unsubstantiated and asked why Riedlinger had passed it on to the board so quickly without checking it first. Board Vice President Paul Barron responded that if she had, she probably would have been accused of intimidating a union supporter.
Gray declined to address the incident directly but said, “My engagement with United Teachers of Lusher was characterized by professionalism and integrity. At every step of the process.”
Leonhard, a Loyola University law professor, received a harshly worded email from businessman Greg Rusovich in which he criticized her for expressing support for the union. He told her that he was suspending a scholarship for Serbian students at Loyola’s College of Law until he could discuss the matter with his family.
“You have every right to your free speech, we have every right to spend our money as we deem appropriate,” he wrote.
In early May, longtime member Andrea Armstrong, also a Loyola employee, resigned for personal reasons.
Some board members question Riedlinger’s actions
The emails also reveal disagreement over Riedlinger’s leadership.
Leonhard said she wanted administrators’ input, but the board should be able to discuss some things without them. She asked that Riedlinger and other administrators be excluded from a closed-door session in which board members would consult their attorney.
This, Leonhard wrote, “is one of those extremely rare situations where the Board’s interests and those of the school administrators may not necessarily be 100 percent aligned.”
Wisdom and Barron said that would damage their relationship with Riedlinger, whom many consider to be the driver behind Lusher’s success.
It appears they compromised. Administrators attended a portion of a closed-door meeting on April 16, and board members continued it without them.
At one point, Riedlinger complained that she was being left out of the frequent, board-wide discussions by email — some of which may violate state law requiring public bodies to discuss matters in public.
“For the first time in 11 years, I have been eliminated from our board’s email list,” Riedlinger wrote.
Through a spokeswoman, Riedlinger declined a request for an interview.
Board members also sparred over how she had responded to the union drive.
The day after the board approved a resolution stating that they would remain neutral in the upcoming union election, the administration sent an email urging teachers to vote against the union. It warned them that the union would hurt the “rare chemistry” between teachers and administrators.
A couple board members said this violated their promise to stay neutral. Others said the letter had been approved by labor attorney Mag Bickford, and the resolution applied to the board, not the administration.
Lusher formally opposed the union’s effort to let teachers vote on the issue, arguing that the charter school wasn’t subject to the federal agency’s oversight.
“We did include the jurisdiction argument,” Bickford told the board. “Because the board was split, I had to do that without a subcommittee to direct me.”
“Where,” Leonhard asked, “did you get the authority to do so? As you correctly pointed out, our board was clearly split.”
Bickford responded: “Please understand that I was copied on many emails on the topic and did not have a vote from the Board. Kathy was adamant that jurisdiction be included.”
LeCesne said, “The Board has vowed to be neutral and Kathy cannot insist on tactics that violate the policy no matter how adamant she is.”
Wisdom fired back: “Mag: Blaine does not speak for the board.”
LeCesne said it wasn’t the first time Riedlinger had interfered with the board’s lawyer, although others argued that it was well within her authority to direct Bickford.
LeCesne told the board that Robert Spencer of The Kullman Firm withdrew as Lusher’s labor attorney because of Riedlinger’s “continued, unrelenting intrusion into the attorney-client relationship.”
LeCesne said that Spencer had told him “that he had to remind Kathy several times, when she attempted to dictate legal strategy, that she was not the client, the Board was.”
Spencer declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
In an interview Wednesday, LeCesne said the emails showed strong emotions, “as is the case with any highly charged issue such as this.”
He said he hoped the divisions wouldn’t have a lasting effect on the board’s leadership. “They certainly don’t from my perspective.”