After its previous “renaming study group” drew criticism for meeting privately and was accused of violating the state Open Meetings Law, Lusher Charter School’s governing board on Thursday created a formal committee, which will meet publicly, to consider new names for the Uptown school.
Though it was appointed by and reported to the president of the Lusher board, a public body, the board’s so-called “study group” met privately over several weeks to whittle down a list of hundreds of suggested new names to a shortlist of 11 and later three — all as part of a process to rename the school.
Lusher’s namesake — Robert Mills Lusher — was a Confederate official and segregationist. And the school’s renaming is part of a broader movement in the city. In recent months, the Orleans Parish School Board has renamed dozens of school buildings it owns that were named for Confederate sympathizers and separatists, including a building named for Lusher that is home to the school’s elementary campus. However, the NOLA Public Schools district is made up entirely of independent charter schools, which can choose their own names, so changing the building names did not change the names of the schools operating within them.
Members of the Lusher community criticized the study group’s closed-door process, which included a finalist list of three names with one option that would have preserved “Lusher” in the school’s name. Some school officials have argued they need to preserve the A-rated school’s brand and anticipate financial losses from changing the name.
A November meeting to vote on a final name drew dozens of concerned community members, some who decried the study group process and others who definitively spoke against preserving the name “Lusher” in any form. The board ultimately decided to delay a final vote on a new name and create a second “renaming study group.”
A few days later, a “group of diverse stakeholders in the LCS community” hired attorney Scott Sternberg to challenge the second study group, who sent a demand letter threatening to sue the board for violating the Open Meetings Law, which requires that public bodies meet in public.
In response to pushback from Lusher’s attorney that the study group could meet in private because it did not have voting authority to choose the final name, Sternberg pointed out that the study group was essentially acting as a board committee, even if the board had not labeled it a “committee.” Sternberg said that it served as an essential part of the policymaking process, it was whittling down candidates through some kind of process — possibly voting — and that the Open Meetings Law applies to advisory bodies as well as decision-making bodies.
Under the law, Sternberg said, it qualifies as a public body.
Days after receiving his demand letter, the board suspended the work of its renaming study group. If the board failed to open future meetings to the public, the letter stated the board would face legal action.
After voting unanimously to form a three member renaming committee on Thursday, board president George Wilson said it would follow state transparency laws but he stopped short of admitting that the private study group was improper or illegal.
“It would be unfair and unwise to expose the members of the renaming study group to an undeserved threat of litigation that would interfere with the school’s progress toward arriving at a new program name,” Wilson said. “So the board renaming committee that has been appointed tonight will proceed, not as a study group, but as a formal committee under the Open Meetings Laws.”
The board reached that vote after a brief executive session.
Board member Kiki Huston made a motion to create a renaming committee with board members Brenda Bourne, Alysia Loshbaugh and Rachel Wisdom.
The board took two public comments before unanimously approving the committee.
“I’d like to thank you for taking this step,” Lusher parent Dana Eness said. “I think it’s really important a formal committee be appointed and I really appreciate that step.”
“I want to thank the board for creating a formal committee and making it public,” Brooke Grant, another Lusher parent, said. “Will the committee include other people in addition to board members?”
On the vote to adjourn, one member of the public asked how diverse voices would be included in the renaming process. Board members did not answer either question. The committee’s process and timeline were unclear by the end of the meeting.