(NOLA Public Schools photo)

Lusher Charter School has temporarily suspended work on selecting a new name for the school after receiving “a threat of litigation” regarding the group’s activities, according to an unsigned email sent to Lusher families Thursday afternoon.

Late Thursday afternoon, The Lens obtained a demand letter sent to Lusher’s governing board on behalf of an unnamed “group of diverse stakeholders in the LCS community,” including Lusher parents, alumni and students, from their attorney Scott Sternberg. The letter says that members of the group prefer to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

The letter accuses the Lusher board of violating the state Open Meetings Law by handing over much of the renaming process to a “study group” meeting in private. It demands that the Lusher board open up future meetings of the study group to the public. If it fails to, the letter says, the board will face legal action.

“We enthusiastically support the [Lusher Charter School] Board’s decision to move forward with an entirely new school name and the call for the Lusher community to come together,” read a statement accompanying the letter.

However, the demand letter goes on, at the end of a meeting last week in which the Lusher board deferred a decision on a new name from a list of finalist names selected by a study group, “The board concluded by forming another ‘study group’ to circumvent the Open Meetings Law for at least the third time this year.”

“While individual objections have been made publicly and informally in the past, they have been unheard or ignored. This is why we felt the need to make a more earnest request.”

The Uptown charter is in the process of renaming the school, whose namesake — Robert Mills Lusher — was a Confederate official and segregationist. The Orleans Parish School Board has already renamed a building, which it owns, named for Lusher. But because New Orleans charter schools operate independently of OPSB, that did not change the name of the school itself. 

Last week, Lusher’s board met to vote on a new name but decided to delay the final selection after three finalists — provided by a previous study group — didn’t resonate with the Lusher community attending the meeting. One of those suggestions would have preserved the name “Lusher,” which was met with fierce criticism from meeting attendees and rejected by the board. 

The three names were pared down from hundreds of suggestions by the previous study group that met over six weeks.

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 met in private, raising concerns as to whether the process violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires public bodies, including advisory bodies, to meet in public.

The newly appointed group appeared poised to meet privately moving forward as well, at least before Thursday’s announcement about potential litigation. 

“As it would be unfair to ask the study group members to proceed under those circumstances, their work has been temporarily suspended until the next meeting of the Lusher Board on December 9, 2021,” Lusher’s unsigned email stated. “The Board will consider an appropriate path forward at that Board meeting.”

Asked for additional information and comment, Lusher’s spokeswoman directed The Lens to the school’s attorney, James Brown, who did not immediately respond to questions.

After The Lens raised the transparency issue at last week’s meeting, several attendees appeared to be concerned that the board, and its study group, were violating the law. 

Last week, Brown said the group was not legally required to meet in public — arguing at first that because it was called a “study group” and not a “committee” that it did not qualify as a public body under the law. He later expanded on that answer, saying that because it will not be taking deciding votes on a name, it did not qualify. 

But the law covers publicly appointed bodies that advise policymakers on decisions as well as policy-making bodies themselves. And after the meeting, Sternberg, 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. (Sternberg also provides legal representation to The Lens.)

The Lens asked NOLA Public Schools district, which authorizes Lusher, about the study group’s work and the Open Meetings Law. The board’s adherence to state transparency laws falls under the school district’s responsibility as a regulator, first because they are laws, but also because Lusher’s operating contract with the district — which the school district enforces — includes a provision that it must follow the Open Meetings Law.

But in a response, a district spokesperson avoided addressing that issue. 

“NOLA Public Schools is responsible for the names of school buildings and followed the established process under its Renaming Initiative,” spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote in an email earlier this week. “School Management Organizations have their own processes should they choose to rename their programs.”

The district has not responded to multiple follow-up requests inquiring whether it is looking into the study group’s actions or whether it has issued any warnings to the school. 

Parent Erin Greenwald, who attended the four-hour-long meeting last week, has been critical of the Lusher board’s lack of transparency. 

“I wish they would just be more transparent in everything related to the name change and process of soliciting new names,” Greenwald, who told The Lens she was not aware of the potential litigation, said on Thursday.

“I hope that it’s not further evidence of Lusher giving the process ‘the big slow,’ ” Greenwald said of the decision to delay the renaming process. “They’ve had two years basically of lots of community engagement pushing them toward the name change and there’s been a lot of foot-dragging,” she said. “I was hopeful the process was going to start moving along more quickly but this might be an opportunity to drag their feet.”

She said she hopes the board will make the renaming process more transparent moving forward — especially in how new names are submitted and narrowed down to the list recommended to the board. 

“I thought the board meeting last week, despite the fact that it lasted four hours, was the most productive conversation they have had in the entire process,” she said.

This story has been updated with a confirmation that the threat of litigation was related to alleged Open Meetings Law violations.

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...