Charter groups, state officials meeting on EBR school plans

Representatives from eight charter management groups plan to sit down Monday and Tuesday with leaders and advisers to the Recovery School District as that state agency decides which groups will land space in the seven schools RSD runs in north Baton Rouge.

The gatherings, alternatively described as interviews and introductory meetings, however, are invitation-only and not open to the general public.

At least one person who’s been invited, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Craig Freeman, may not go as a result. And former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Noel Hammatt, who hasn’t been invited, is going further, saying this is just the latest in a series of meetings that legally should be conducted in public.

Freeman is one of 22 members serving on an advisory board to RSD, specifically offering advice on a network of future charter school schools RSD is calling the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone.

The charter management groups will be setting up a network modeled after the charter-dominated public education system in New Orleans.

The state plans to award space on RSD Baton Rouge campuses in October.

The eight charter management groups that have agreed to attend this week’s closed-door session are Baton Rouge University Prep, Celerity Educational Group, Collegiate Academies, Family Urban Schools of Excellence or FUSE, Friendship Louisiana Inc., Friends of King, KIPP New Orleans, and Spirit of Excellence.

Charter schools are public schools run by private groups. The state gave the green light in August to 14 different groups that want to start charter schools in Baton Rouge in the years ahead. Thirteen charter schools currently operate in Baton Rouge.

The meetings Monday and Tuesday are being held in the Claiborne Building in downtown Baton Rouge, which is the headquarters of the state Department of Education.

Freeman shared an email exchange he has had with RSD officials on the planned meetings. In a Sept. 10 email to RSD, Freeman says he’s likely to skip these “community operator introduction meetings” if they remain closed to the public.

“Technically, I know there is no need for an open meeting,” Freeman wrote. “But as a public official who embraces transparency (and as a journalism professor that teaches transparency), there is no way I can participate in a process that affects the public without opening it to the public.”

Justin Blanchard, RSD’s manager of external affairs said the meetings are being held behind closed doors because “we want people to be able to really engage in a dialogue with prospective organizations that would be difficult in an open community meeting type setting.”

He added, “We have invited what we believe to be a really robust cross section of over 80 people to attend and we’re receiving good feedback.”

Hammatt, a frequent critic of RSD and the state Department of Education, said he disagrees with Freeman’s assessment that legally the meetings can be private. Hammatt said he believes the advisory board Freeman sits on, which has been meeting since at least March, is a public body that should hold all its meetings in public.

He said he has spoken to three attorneys who agree with his view.

If the advisory board is attending interviews with charter groups, Hammatt said, public notices should be sent out in advance and the public should be allowed to attend..

Dana Peterson, RSD’s deputy superintendent for external affairs, said in an interview earlier this month that public meetings would be required only if the advisory board was created by an elected body, such as a school board or city council. Since the advisory board wasn’t created by elected officials, he said, it is not obligated to open its meetings to the public.

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, however, has found in a series of advisory opinions going back to 1979 that advisory boards to executive branch leaders are not exempt from complying with the state’s Open Meetings Law.

In 1989, then Attorney General William Guste advised the then-mayor of New Orleans to hold in public meetings of a citizen’s advisory committee he was creating to advise him on changes to the city charter.

Mayors, in Guste’s view, are part of a “municipal authority” subject to state open meetings law if that authority creates a committee or subcommittee — even if that committee is meant to be only “advisory.” Guste goes on to note that the Legislature specified that the open meetings law should be “liberally construed” in favor of openness.

In April 2011, The Advocate, citing those opinions, persuaded Mayor-President Kip Holden to change direction on a plan to have a private advisory committee help him select a new Baton Rouge police chief.