Last year, The Lens revealed that the board of Lusher Charter School privately discussed how to deal with a teachers’ union drive and orchestrated meetings so they didn’t have to let the public in. Both appeared to violate the state Open Meetings Law.

Soon after, Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district would look into the matter.

Its conclusion, in short: Move along; nothing to see here.

The district’s examination raises questions about how much oversight the elected school board exercises over the city’s public charter schools. The district currently oversees 32 schools. In July, eight charter schools will shift to its oversight. The rest are scheduled to move next year.

Our story, based on a review of thousands of pages of emails sent among Lusher’s board members, reported that:

  • Board members emailed drafts of a key resolution to the others, suggesting changes and saying whether they would support it.
  • They debated whether to vote on the union or cancel a meeting, expressing their stances on the union in the process.
  • They set up small meetings with teachers to avoid convening a quorum of the board, which would have required them to notify the public in advance and allow anyone to attend.

Each appeared to violate the state Open Meetings Law, which gives the public the right to witness deliberations and decisions of public bodies.

Representatives of the school district and Lusher met last fall to discuss The Lens’s stories and another allegation. After the meeting, Lusher attorney Angie Christina wrote a letter to summarize what they talked about.

“Each of these complaints [is] unfounded and based on misrepresented allegations,” she wrote. “We hope that the information provided at the meeting, as well as this letter, puts these matters to rest.”

“Each of these complaints [is] unfounded and based on misrepresented allegations.”—Angie Christina, attorney for Lusher

It apparently did. The district didn’t pursue the matter further.

“OPSB administration met with Lusher leadership on [the] issue. It was determined that no further actions needed to be taken,” school district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said in a written statement.

We asked several times to interview school district officials about how they investigated the matter. They refused.

After emailing back and forth to schedule an interview, Ellis finally responded, “Upon further investigation and consultation with Lusher, OPSB thinks your request has been satisfied.”

Emails revealed frequent discussion of board business outside public meetings

State law and Lusher’s charter contract with the Orleans Parish School Board require the school to follow the Louisiana Open Meetings Law.

The law says it’s essential that public business be done in the open and that citizens know about “the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”

Last spring, The Lens requested emails sent among Lusher board members around the time that its teachers asked it to recognize their newly formed union. The union drive divided the school community and the board, with administrators arguing it would infringe on the charter’s autonomy.

The emails showed Lusher board members frequently communicated outside meetings through a Google email group called “Lusher board only” and another one that included administrators.

There’s nothing wrong with board members passing along information by email, said Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C., organization that advocates for freedom of information.

But that discussion can’t take the place of public discussion about policy, according to Marshall and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

Over email, board members discussed how they could meet with teachers to learn why they wanted to unionize. Board president Blaine LeCesne organized the meetings.

“If at any point we reach quorum level, one or two of us may have to step outside,” he wrote to the rest of the board.

LeCesne said he wanted to avoid a quorum, or a majority of the board, to ensure it followed the law, not because he wanted to evade the public.

One of those meetings appears to have violated the law anyway because a quorum of the board’s Executive Committee was there. That means the public should have been notified beforehand, and the meeting should have been open to anyone.

“You’re supposed to see the deliberations. It’s not the Open Decisions Act. … It’s the Open Meetings Law.”—Adam Marshall, open-government expert

The board was set to consider the union’s request in late April. As the date approached, board members engaged in a heated debate — again, by email — about whether they should delay the vote.

That decision itself could be considered a policy matter because not voting on the union’s request for recognition would have the same effect as voting it down.

In those messages it became clear who supported the union and who didn’t. State law specifically outlaws public bodies from using “any manner of proxy voting procedure, secret balloting, or any other means to circumvent the intent of this Chapter.”

After voting against recognition of the union, board members went back to their computers to talk. As another meeting approached, they emailed versions of a resolution back and forth and discussed which version they’d support.

The final version included language saying school administrators could share views that could help teachers make a “sound and fully informed decision.”

The discussion in public wasn’t nearly as extensive as the one over email. The meeting was short and the resolution passed unanimously after a few board members commented briefly.

A few days later, administrators sent a letter to teachers urging them to vote against the union, a move enabled by revisions negotiated over email.

Asked by The Lens how the board arrived at a consensus so smoothly, LeCesne said the first version was drafted prior to the meeting and it “evolved.” Board Secretary Rachel Wisdom said  nothing was deliberated “like in an email chain or anything like that.”
Marshall said their actions appeared to violate the spirit of the law.

“You’re supposed to see the deliberations,” he said. “It’s not the Open Decisions Act. … It’s the Open Meetings Law.”

How the school district investigated

The school district declined our interview requests when we reported the story last year, but a week after it was published, the superintendent said his staff would look into the issues we raised.

We checked back last month and learned the district had closed its inquiry without taking any action.

The school district wouldn’t explain how they investigated Lusher, but they provided a letter from its attorney briefly disputing the Lens’ findings.

“It was determined that no further actions needed to be taken.”—Orleans Parish School Board spokeswoman Dominique Ellis

The attorney, Angie Christina, didn’t dispute that the board sought to limit members’ attendance at certain meetings to avoid a quorum. She wrote that the board wanted to give faculty “a non-confrontational forum” to express their opinions.

“The board was careful not to convene a quorum at any of the meetings as not to run afoul of the law,” she wrote.

But it’s illegal to circumvent the intent of the Public Meetings Law.

The Attorney General’s Office has advised that a public body could run afoul of the Open Meetings Law if a public official acts “in a manner specifically intended to avoid an actual quorum, and the effect of his or her actions provide an identical result to what would occur if an actual quorum did discuss the issue.”

The office has also advised government bodies to provide public notice for any meeting where a quorum of a public body could show up. All the Lusher board members were invited to these meetings with teachers.

If too many board members showed up at a meeting, their plan was to have someone step out of the room. That’s called a “walking quorum,” and it’s not allowed.

“Although certain positions were expressed via email, no deliberations transpired in those exchanges. … Although board members may have been copied on e-mail exchanges, the entire board did not participate in any particular discussion.”—Angie Christina, Lusher attorney

Marshall reviewed Christina’s letter. “It sounds like what is being said there is, ‘We were very careful not to make any of this public. We were very careful in that we didn’t want to do anything to trigger the right of the public to participate,’” he said. “Which again seems like it’s contrary certainly to the spirit of the Open Meetings Law.”

About the discussions over email, Christina wrote in her letter:

“Regarding Ms. Jewson’s claims that the Lusher board held improper meetings via email exchanges, we explained that, although certain positions were expressed via email, no deliberations transpired in those exchanges, and that, although board members may have been copied on e-mail exchanges, the entire board did not participate in any particular discussion.”

But the Attorney General’s Office has advised that passing information among public officials could have the effect of convening a quorum of the public body. It has pointed out that there could be a problem if such communication “effectively stifles any further discussion of the issue at a public meeting.”

Most of the emails went to all board members.

Nine of the board’s 11 members sent emails discussing how they should respond to the union’s request for recognition. All 11 board members received the messages and drafts of the resolution; three shared drafts and another three offered input.

Six board members were at the meeting where that resolution was approved unanimously; just three spoke.

We also reported that the board dragged its feet responding to our public records requests.

“It sounds like what is being said there is, ‘We were very careful not to make any of this public.’”—Adam Marshall, open-government expert

In her letter to the school district, Christina described how the school responded to The Lens’ request for emails among school board members sent over five weeks, and why the school didn’t provide everything we asked for.

She wrote that she provided emails from three board members and asked the Lens reporter to consider the request fulfilled or agree to pay the cost of producing more emails. According to Christina, the reporter didn’t respond.

What she didn’t mention is that our attorney did respond, objecting to her decision not to provide all the emails and asking if we could limit the time frame. He didn’t hear back.

Lusher never did provide all the messages we asked for.

No one from the school district contacted The Lens to ask about our public records requests or our reporting.

How much oversight is given to charters?

Charter schools are publicly funded but run by private, nonprofit groups. As long as they meet academic, financial and organizational standards, they have broad authority to set educational methods and priorities.

Education reformers say a balance of autonomy and accountability is key.

“We’ve always said that good charter schools start with good authorizing,” said Caroline Roemer. She’s the director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, which provides resources to charter schools across the state.

She doesn’t believe it infringes on a school’s autonomy for an authorizer like the Orleans Parish School Board to ensure a school is operating according to expectations. But it can be hard to walk the line of autonomy and accountability, she said.

Monitoring academics and finance are easy, she said; governance is tougher. “That’s everything from public meeting law and budget work” to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

She’s seen such oversight at the state level.

“We’ve always said that good charter schools start with good authorizing.”—Caroline Roemer, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools

This spring, after The Lens reported the board of ReNEW Schools had held committee meetings without notifying the public, the Recovery School District formally warned the charter group that it had violated the terms of its charter.

The Orleans Parish School Board does have a performance agreement with its schools. Lusher met the standard for organizational performance, which includes following the Open Meetings Law, for the 2015-16 school year.

The number of schools under the Orleans Parish School Board is growing, and the district is expanding its accountability office.

Earlier this year, Ellis told The Lens the district was working to hire several more staffers by the end of this school year. It plans to hire more next school year, too.

With the planned return of charter schools now under the Recovery School District, the local school district is revising its accountability policies and the factors it uses to evaluate schools. Ellis said they should be set by September and implemented in the 2018-19 school year.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...