More boards follow rules

Some charter schools give public notice about budgets

By Jessica Williams

The Lens

New Orleans —Twenty-five of New Orleans’ 43 charter school boards have complied with a state law that requires them to publicize and gather public input on their school budgets before they’re finalized, according to a Lens survey.

Twelve more came close to compliance, falling short on just one or two requirements.

This comes a year after The Lens reported that almost no charter school boards were following the law.

Duris Holmes, president of the board that runs Benjamin Franklin Charter High School, said the reason some boards didn’t comply is probably that they didn’t know the rules.

“I know when we talked to other schools … it was a question of whether this applied to us at all,” Holmes said. This year, his board is one of 25 that complied with the law.

Franklin’s board, Advocates for Excellence in Education, approved the school’s budget in an open meeting last year. Board members said they didn’t know that they had to provide special notice beforehand, even though the budget laws are outlined in their charter agreement.

When The Lens first reported on the issue in 2011, nearly all of the school officials expressed similar ignorance.

Still, officials with Franklin and other schools said last year they would work to comply with the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act, which applies to all local public agencies.

Once New Orleans’ educational system was decentralized after Hurricane Katrina, interested taxpayers couldn’t attend just one school board meeting to sound off on the spending of public dollars.

Louisiana Public Charter School Association Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley has been vocal about the need for her members to adhere to open-government laws. She has said that charters “are expected to do better” than their traditional school counterparts in that regard because they enjoy more autonomy. Her organization informed charters of the budget law and encouraged compliance.

The law requires all local public agencies to:

In most cases, the official journal for Orleans Parish is The Times-Picayune. Such notices appear in the legal notices section of the classifieds.

In general, boards followed the first three requirements of the law. But they fell short on the last step: notifying the public that their budgeting process was finished.

Of the 25 boards that complied with the law, five did not publish a notice stating that their budgeting process was complete until after The Lens asked them to provide proof that they had done so. And of the 12 boards that came close to complying, six didn’t publish that final notice.

In the remaining cases, board representatives were unable to show that they had published the final notice, or they didn’t respond to inquiries:

Most boards said they hadn’t taken the final step because they were unaware that they had to. Ninh Tran, a spokesman for Lagniappe Academies, said last week that the school would publish an ad in the near future.

“We certainly want to adhere to the rules,” Tran said.

Last year, the Orleans Parish School Board, which is subject to the same budget law, was the only local school board that followed the law’s requirement on how and when to notify the public of its budget hearing. However, the board did not publish a final notice of completion. The board did both this year.

Five boards couldn’t show that they had published either one of the required notices in the paper:

Officials at Intercultural Charter attempted to email a budget notice to The Times-Picayune, but they sent it to an incorrect address. (The school’s charter was not renewed, so it will not have to go through the process next year.)

Officials at John McDonogh and The NET, two schools that opened this school year, both said they weren’t aware of the law. A spokeswoman for Encore Academy, which also opened this school year, said that the board did approve the budget in an open meeting, although that isn’t enough under the law.

Kristina Kent, president of The NET’s board, said she appreciated The Lens for raising the issue. “We were just unaware that that was how it needed to be done, but we will do it in the future,” she said.

The new board did, however, publish its budget on its website prior to approving it, she said.

This story is published in cooperation with the Internet news site The Lens,