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Orleans superintendent is reviewing Lens stories on Lusher board’s actions

The superintendent of Orleans Parish schools said his office is examining the stories published by The Lens last week that raised questions about how Lusher Charter School’s board of directors conducted its business amid a contentious union drive this spring.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis noted that the Orleans Parish School Board is the agency that authorized Lusher. His office generally oversees all charters it authorizes, and it has a say in school renewals.

“I am charged by law and by the OPSB with monitoring and requiring corrective actions when a school is deemed to be noncompliant with its obligations with state law,” he wrote in an email to The Lens Tuesday.

State law, board policy and the terms of Lusher’s charter contract require it to comply with the state Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

“It would be premature for me to offer comment regarding the specific allegations raised in The Lens’ report at this juncture,” he wrote. “As we continue reviewing the information presented in the article, we will take further action to investigate the assertions as warranted.”

The Lens acquired thousands of pages of emails through a public-records request, and they provide the basis for the stories. The Lens asked the Lusher board members for copies of these emails months before receiving all of them. One board member provided them immediately; we’re still waiting on many.

Over the course of six weeks, emails to and from the Lusher school board members show they repeatedly conducted public business regarding the union effort in private.

This included setting up four small meetings with board members and faculty that had the effect of circumventing the Open Meetings Law, as well as discussing a key board resolution by group email. When board members did meet publicly on the resolution, they quickly resolved the issue that was heavily deliberated over by email.

Members were deeply divided in opinion on whether to voluntarily recognize a union for the purposes of collective bargaining. Emails show board members attacking one another, calling on the board president to step down for his treatment of the school CEO, and arguing over whether she had overstepped her authority in fighting the union.

Nine of the 11 board members discussed over email items that are required by the Open Meetings Law to be discussed publicly. The board also debated via emails whether to simply ignore the union petition instead of voting on it.

The Open Meetings Law doesn’t address the general use of email among members of a public body, but the Attorney General’s Office has advised that it’s inappropriate to use email to get around the intent of the law. The office also said it’s illegal to privately find out how others would vote.

In the emails, board members offered up their positions on issues, and the board secretary summed up at least partial results. Some one-on-one emails — which are allowed by law —  ended up being forwarded to other board members, which could be a problem. The law prohibits the use of “electronic communication to engage in any secret balloting” to learn how members would vote, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Lewis said reviewing such issues is the purview of the Orleans Parish School Board.

“While it is not the intention of the OPSB, or of this administration, to interfere in the day-to-day operation of individual schools or in the actions of their governing boards, there are legal and contractual standards that the public expects us to uphold, and state law forms the foundation of those expectations,” he wrote. “The public can be assured that OPSB conducts its business in an open environment.”

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