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State says ReNEW Schools broke law by meeting privately to interview CEO candidates

The state Department of Education has notified ReNEW Schools that its board violated state law by meeting privately to interview CEO candidates.

Those interviews should have occurred at meetings that were open and announced to the public, Laura Hawkins, deputy chief of staff for the state education department, wrote in a letter to ReNEW board chairman Stephen Rosenthal on Tuesday.

Last week, the nonprofit board that runs the six-school charter network selected Kevin Guitterrez as its next CEO.

What the public didn’t know was that the CEO search committee, which included four board members, had interviewed three finalists at meetings that were not announced to the public. The Lens reported the potential violations Thursday, before the board met to hire Guitterrez.

Hawkins’ letter confirms those meetings were held in violation of state law.

“Because this search committee was approved and appointed by the board to conduct the search, it constitutes a public body and is therefore subject to Open Meetings Law,” she wrote.

In a written statement, Rosenthal defended the board’s selection process, which involved a search firm and a national search for applicants.

“As part of the process, we conducted a round of interviews which we believed would equate to utilizing an executive session,” Rosenthal said. “We now understand that, while the two methods are similar, a formal and properly noticed open meeting is the appropriate setting to enact these executive session interviews.”

State law allows public bodies to discuss certain matters behind closed doors, called an executive session. One reason allowed by state law is to discuss someone’s “character, professional competence, or physical or mental health.”

However, a public body — in this case, the search committee — must first convene in public before going into a private session, even if no other business will be discussed. The governing body must notify the public when and where the meeting will take place and what will be discussed.

Any committee action, such as a vote for finalists, must occur in public as well. Rosenthal told The Lens that the committee reached a consensus on the finalists, but didn’t vote.

Before Thursday’s meeting, the last the public heard of the CEO search was a brief update from Rosenthal at the December board meeting. The January and February meetings were cancelled. The agenda for Thursday’s meeting, released the day before, contained the item “Board vote approving next CEO.”

The search committee met twice to interview Guitterrez and two other finalists. It picked him and another candidate to move forward, and they met with school principals and staff. That candidate later withdrew, leaving Guitterrez as the sole finalist.

Actions taken at meetings that don’t follow the Open Meetings Law can be challenged in court. A lawsuit must be filed within 60 days of the action.

At Thursday’s meeting, board member Sandra Cahill said she was pleased to introduce Guitterrez as the candidate recommended by the search committee.

However, Hawkins said because the search committee’s decision was ratified by the board at a meeting that did follow the law, “no further action is necessary at this time.”

While interviews can happen in executive session, they don’t have to. In 2012, New Beginnings Schools Foundation interviewed both of its CEO finalists in a public meeting. When Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. was applying for his job, the district held public question-and-answer sessions with finalists.

All Recovery School District charters operate under its Charter School Performance Compact. A notice of breach, such as the one issued to ReNEW, is the second of three levels of intervention.

Hawkins advised Rosenthal that the notice of breach will be considered in ReNEW’s annual school reviews and “can impact the length of a charter school’s renewal term.”

She wrote, “All future meetings of any committee or subcommittee of the ReNEW … board of directors must be in compliance with Louisiana Open Meetings Law.”

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