After an explosive meeting of the Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans governing board on Monday evening that included an unsuccessful effort to remove one member over a “derogatory” email, the member who led that effort resigned from the board Tuesday morning.
The tumult comes amid a transition in the school’s administrative leadership that drew a number of concerned parents to the meeting Monday, and exposes a number of issues that apparently divide the board but have had relatively little discussion in public until now.
On April 22, amid ongoing discussions about the plan for the addition of a second grade in the fall, board member Allen Kelly sent the following email, intended for vice-chair Tom Klingler, to the address of fellow board member Paige Saleun by accident:
As Vice Chair, would you bitch-slap, Paige? Please… Last I recall I was not invited to the meeting between Jean, JJ, and Paige in which they discussed second grade; were you? Me thinks Paige doth protest too much… have you or I hit a sensitive nerve?
And you are correct, PreK-3 is considered a private school and public funds can not be used to alleviate a private school deficit. This is an area we may get into trouble over if we only have Pre-K3 at the FPC site; an LA-4 classroom of Pre-K4 kids would help the “fungibility” of LFNO funds spent on the FPC site immensely.
Lastly, I heard through the grapevine that we have lost several LFNO advocates (and applicants btw) because the word on the street is that several Board members are LFNO parents… JM, CM, and PS qualify as such.
Saleun then forwarded the email to the other board members and, according to several board members on both sides of the situation interviewed for this article, a general discussion began about how to handle Kelly’s email. Kelly said Tuesday morning that his use of the term “bitchslap” was only intended in a colloquial, verbal sense that Saleun needed a reprimand for her handling of the second grade issue.
“Was the intent any way shape or form physical? Absolutely not,” Kelly said.
[Update, 3:25 p.m.: To see Kelly’s letter of apology to the board, click here.]
Ultimately, board chair Jean Montes sent a letter to Kelly asking for his resignation, and stating that if he declined to step down, the board would vote to remove him at the next meeting — which requires a 2/3 majority, according to the school’s bylaws.
At Monday night’s meeting, the board was met with an unusually large audience of 15 to 20 people, many of them parents still concerned about the future of interim general director Jean-Jacques Grandiere while the board advertises for a permanent replacement for former principal Jill Otis. Montes welcomed the parents, and after hearing about 15 minutes’ worth of reports from school staff members, the board entered a closed-door executive session to discuss “personnel matters.”
Inside the executive session, according to the board members interviewed for the article, discussion of Kelly’s future on the board resumed. Kelly told the board that he felt his apology to them for his words was sufficient, and that he had no intention of resigning.
“I do not think that my behavior publicly or behind closed doors merits a resignation,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Montes said that it became clear that not enough board members would vote to remove Kelly, so the matter was to be dropped.
“We came out of the session with the understanding that he was not willing to resign and the board was not willing to do it, so it was a moot point,” Montes said in an interview Tuesday morning.
Board member Kenneth Charity, however, said no such conclusion was reached, and that the position of the board was not determined.
After about 40 minutes, the board returned to the public meeting. Montes then held a brief question-and-answer period with parents, assuring them that Grandiere is a candidate for the general director position, but that it must be publicly advertised. He also vowed that the board plans to increase its communication with parents, after being asked about the transparency of its decision making.
The meeting appeared close to its conclusion, when Charity said that he had a motion to remove a board member. He received a second from Saleun, and without stating the name of any board members, he told the audience that one board member had sent an email to another that was “very derogatory,” and that because of the extreme nature of it, he believed the author of the email should no longer be on the board.
Klingler (the intended recipient of the email) intervened at one point, saying that Charity’s comments were “out of order,” but Montes allowed Charity to call a vote. Charity, Montes, Saleun and board secretary Catherine MacPhaille voted to remove the board member, while Kelly, Klingler and board treasurer Hema Banangada voted “no.” (Former board chair Andrew Abrams was absent.) Well short of the 2/3 majority needed, the motion failed, and the meeting quickly ended.
On Tuesday morning, Charity resigned from the board.
Montes said he requested Charity’s resignation because he acted against the consensus agreed upon in the executive session, and because of further conversations following the meeting that he did not feel at liberty to disclose.
“His judgment was called into question,” Montes said.
Charity, however, said Tuesday morning that he was not asked to resign, but did it of his own accord as a rebuke for the board’s secrecy in the entire matter.
“The situation is just an atrocity,” Charity said. “They’re really undermining the dynamics of the board and the school. It’s a matter of censorship, it’s a matter of control, it’s a matter of not being transparent. It’s a matter of standing for principle whether you have the votes or not.”
Further, by not punishing Kelly, Charity said the board essentially deems the language in the email as acceptable.
“We do nothing but undermine the idea of how we are supposed to conduct ourselves, especially when it’s an institution of learning for children,” Charity said. “I don’t want my daughter to be subjected to that, but if it does, I want there to be a system that deals with it.”
Finally, Charity said that he believed the issue directly relates to the concerns raised by the parents who attended the meeting.
“The issues with the leadership of the school right now, all of these things are creating a major problem that parents were asking about last night,” Charity said. “I was representing the children and the parents and the non-status quo by bringing it forward, to force us to be accountable for what transpired. I broke the code of silence. I will continue to break the code of silence, and that was the correct thing to do.”
Charity’s resignation brings the board’s number to seven, which is still greater than the five required by the LFNO bylaws. Montes said he doesn’t plan to seek a replacement for Charity immediately, but to focus the board on the school’s greater tasks of finishing the general director hiring process and moving into a new building in the fall while doubling the student population.
“Ultimately we all want to have a great situation here, where we can focus on governance issues that lead the school toward its vision,” Montes said.
Down the line, especially as the board creates new committees for various functions, Montes said the board may select some new members.
“If along the way that have some people that fit well with us, whether parents or people from the community, we’ll consider them,” Montes said.
Kelly said he regretted Charity’s resignation, and that he hopes the board can now begin to move forward as well. “I’m ready to work with any board members on any topic on a professional basis,” Kelly said.
But several issues remain unresolved. Kelly’s email references significant issues before the board that have previously not been discussed publicly, such as the proper role of parents on the school board, the division surrounding the addition of the second grade, and concerns about the relationship between the tuition-based pre-kindergarten and the finances of the public charter school.
Further, the board may have contradicted state open-meetings law in any of several ways. First, any decisions reached by the board prior to the meeting by email may violate the “Right to Observe” enshrined in the state open-meetings law, as the state Attorney General has previously opined that no such activity can take place by telephone:
If a quorum of the Council or a committee thereof contacts each other by telephone for the purpose of discussing or deciding on a course of action on a matter over which it has authority, this would be considered a circumvention of the open meetings laws.
Further, any agreement by the board reached during executive session about Kelly would be improper, as no decisions on votes are allowed to be discussed in closed-door sessions, according to the state Attorney General’s office:
Executive sessions are permitted for discussion only. The public body cannot take any poll, straw vote or final or binding action in Executive Session.
Finally, state law clearly requires “public comment at any meeting of the school board prior to taking any vote.” While Montes did hold a 10-minute dialogue during the meeting — even taking questions from the audience, which is above the law’s requirements — no public comment was solicited on the issue of removing a board member.
Asked about the open-meetings issues after Monday’s board meeting, Montes said he would research the issue and correct the board’s procedures as needed.
To read the full text of Charity’s resignation letter (with email addresses redacted), click here. To read our live coverage of Monday’s meeting, see the box below.