(NOLA Public Schools photo)

After considering three potential new names for Lusher Charter School at a Thursday night meeting, the Uptown charter school’s governing board voted to dismiss one that would have preserved the name “Lusher” but ultimately decided to delay a vote to select a new name until it could gain more community input. 

The four-hour meeting began with a slate of three potential new names for board consideration. They were: “Lusher Charter School in honor of Dr. Jeanne Lusher,” “Willow Charter School” and “New Orleans Charter School of Arts and Sciences.” Attorneys representing Lusher filed paperwork with the Louisiana Secretary of State reserving all three names for the school this month. 

On Sept. 30, the board voted to move forward with renaming the Uptown charter school, whose namesake — Robert Mills Lusher — was a Confederate official and segregationist. 

The decision followed an action by the Orleans Parish School Board to rename dozens of school buildings under a new policy passed last year to rename buildings named for Confederate sympathizers, segregationists and slave-owners. That process included the two district-owned campuses occupied by Lusher, which have both been renamed. However, that did not change the names of the independent charter schools operating on those campuses. 

A renaming study group appointed by Lusher board President George Wilson following the Sept. 30 vote has been meeting to filter through community suggestions to recommend finalists to the board. Despite the fact that the study group was appointed to perform work for the board — a public body — about a matter on which it will vote, the group has been meeting in private, raising concerns as to whether the process violates the state’s Open Meetings Law. 

An attorney for Lusher said the group was not legally required to meet in public. But a prominent local First Amendment and open government attorney told The Lens that he believes the study group is subject to state transparency requirements for public bodies. 

The study group received hundreds of suggestions for new names for the school, according to records obtained by a Lusher parent group called LCS Families for Change. It whittled the list of hundreds down to 11, two of which still included the name “Lusher.” Then it took community input on the 11 and narrowed the list to three finalists. 

Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher

On Thursday night, the group presented the slate of three names, which Wilson described as “non-binding.” Once the names were presented, board member Alysia Loshbaugh quickly kicked off discussion.

“I’d like to make a motion to immediately disregard Jeanne Lusher as an option for the school,” Loshbaugh said. 

Her motion was quickly seconded by board member Rachel Wisdom and the board opened the floor for one hour of public comments. 

Of roughly 30 public comments, there were a handful in favor of preserving the name “Lusher” through Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher. But many people spoke in favor of dropping Lusher from the name.

Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher was a doctor who specialized in childhood cancer and blood diseases who died in Michigan in 2016. The Lusher renaming study group highlighted her work at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, but in fact she spent only a brief part of her career — as a resident — working here. She is best known in Detroit, where she spent most of her career. 

One Lusher parent said a former colleague of Lusher’s she recently contacted did not approve of this use of her name.

“I spoke with a colleague of Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher’s. She was incredibly upset that her mentor’s name had been appropriated in this situation. She was offended,” parent and alumna Ann Kaufman said. “The name Lusher in our community is toxic — it’s time to move on.”

Another parent said that keeping the name Lusher, even if it honored Dr. Jeanne Marie Lusher, was “an aggressive act of white supremacy.”

“I’m incredibly disappointed that we could potentially leave today renaming Lusher Charter School, ‘Lusher Charter School’,” parent Vasy McCoy said. 

Loyola University professor Michael Cowan, who is married to Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger, urged attendees to consider the arguments from the pro-”Lusher” camp. 

Those in favor of keeping the school’s name have argued renaming will cost money, could lead to a diminishment of the school’s status and could cause confusion among college admissions departments considering applicants from the school. They have also said they believe the Lusher school legacy belongs to its community and its generations of alumni, not Robert Mills Lusher. (The school dropped “Robert Mills” from its name in the 1970s.) 

“A sure sign of a deeply polarized community is the inability to listen to the different points of view within it. They’re both rational — but they are not being treated that way,” Cowan said. “The tone of this debate has taken on a poisonous quality.”

“The racist connotation of Lusher is really a new thing, that’s not something we heard about until the last few years,” attorney and administrative law judge Richard Exnicios said.

After an hour of public comment board members got their chance to speak. 

Board members Gary Solomon and Brenda Bourne, who formerly served as the school’s middle school principal, spoke in favor of preserving the name.

“As a Lusher administrator and a person who loves Lusher school, I was there for almost 25 years and never once did we celebrate Robert Mills — it was Lusher,” Bourne said. 

Solomon said “the name ‘Lusher’ needs to stay.” 

“To be called a racist by people who don’t know me, I find it very, very offensive,” Solomon said.

He also criticized the low response rate to the renaming survey.

“What I find disheartening is that only six percent of the parents voted in the first poll,” he said. “Thirty-four people called in tonight. … If this is such a burning issue for the community why would only 34 people call in.”

But other board members said it was time to move on from the name. That included Kiki Huston, who said while the name may not have been so tied to its namesake in the past, that it’s a new era.

“I think the name Lusher at this point has to go. It’s in no way a reflection of the program or people at the school but we’re hearing from too many people that it causes pain,” she said.

Member Rachel Wisdom, who was on the renaming study group, agreed. 

“The reason that name made it to the final three for presentation is so that you would have a voice. I have been for a long time leaning to the side that is absolutely in favor of rejecting any association to the name lusher,” she said. “It’s time for us to sever and completely disassociate. Not because we’ve always associated with Robert Mills, but because of a heightened awareness. And it makes people feel uncomfortable.”

She also addressed Solomon’s criticism of parent turnout, noting that a second survey got more than 2,000 responses.

The board called for a vote and the motion to dismiss the name from consideration passed 4-2, with Solomon and Bourne voting against. While the sentiment of the members in favor appears to be a permanent move away from “Lusher,” the vote did not explicitly ban the possibility of another “Lusher” option coming up again in the renaming process.

Willow Charter School

Next members of the board put forward a motion to rename the school “Willow Charter School.” The highly-rated school’s original campus is on Willow Street. Today the building houses its elementary school. 

Some members of the public thought Willow was a smart, safe choice, in that it was not named for an individual person. But others thought more time should be taken to consider additional names and allow for more community involvement. 

“Think about the qualities our school pretends to represent. The arts — there are so many incredible artists, particularly of color, in this community that you could consider,” parent Erin Greenwald said. “There’s been so much kerfuffle over Lusher that there’s been very little thought as to what the next step is. If you need to pick Willow — fine. It’s the cowardly choice, but it will be better than Lusher.”

During the debate on the Willow Charter School option, several members of the public asked that Esther Alexis, a former teacher at the school who died in 2017, be considered as a namesake. Students attested to her passion for teaching and helping them learn. 

But there was a resounding call to slow the process down, with attendees asking for greater community involvement and more input from parents and students. 

After several public comments, board member Alysia Loshbaugh withdrew her motion backing the “Willow Charter School” option. 

Board members then discussed how to slow the process down and garner more community input. Solomon proposed hiring a branding consultant to help with the name change and community voice. Several members of the public criticized the idea, stating it would be too costly and after many public comments he ultimately withdrew his motion too. 

Then board president George Wilson suggested the board form a second study group.

“I hope we can do this with as much dispatch as we can and have this done in four months,” he said. “Hire a consultant to work on the process for coming up with the list of names and getting community input from it and presenting it back to the board along with public comment and then a vote by the board.”

He appointed board members Rachel Wisdom, Alysia Loshbaugh and Lusher administrators Charlene Hebert, Charmaine Davis and Sheila Nelson. All but Loshbaugh served on the previous study group.

The appointments did not go through a board vote. 

Open Meeting Law concerns

During the meeting, The Lens asked the board to explain why the study group will not be meeting publicly as the previous one did not. Under the State Open Meetings Law board committees, which often perform advisory work similar to the group, are required to hold public meetings, complete with 24-hour notice and agendas available to the public.

But Lusher’s attorney James Brown insisted the group was not the same thing as a board committee.

“We’ve moved past that agenda item,” Brown said. “It’s a study group, not a committee. That agenda item is behind us.”

He later said since the group does not have direct decision-making authority and only reports to the board, it wasn’t covered by the law. But the law explicitly says publicly appointed advisory bodies are required to hold open meetings. 

Brown did not respond to emailed questions inquiring whether the previous study group provided notice of its meetings as state Open Meetings Law requires for committees of a public body.

Scott Sternberg, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues and government transparency, did not accept Brown’s explanation. (Sternberg provides legal representation for The Lens.)

“There is zero doubt in my mind that a committee by another name is still a committee and therefore absolutely subject to the Open Meetings Law,” Sternberg said.

“I am aware of no case or law which defines a ‘study group.’ I am however aware of the actual law on this subject which is that committees are committees,” he said. “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck it’s probably a duck. It’s a committee, that’s the deal. There’s no way around that — that’s what the Open Meetings Law is for.”

Sternberg noted the school has already shown these “study groups” directly advise the board,  as the first one did over the last six weeks by taking hundreds of suggested new names for the school and first reducing the list to 11 and finally to the three it submitted for board consideration.

“The first study group informs it significantly because the study group pulled from a list, which was not initially public, a list of names the board would then get to debate about,” he said. “The fact that that group culled a list means they had to have taken votes, made decisions, these are the kind of things the Open Meetings Law exists to ensure are done in public.” 

Sternberg said that even if the study group may not have taken actual votes, it was part of the decision-making process.

“If you call it a dog, it doesn’t make it a dog if it’s still quacking.”

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...