BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Critics of Louisiana’s education board are raising questions about a five-member “working group” that has been working behind closed doors to review the state’s accountability system for public schools.
The Advocate reports that officials with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education defend the practice, saying the group’s work is not an attempt to get around the state open meetings law, and that a BESE attorney believes the group’s work is legal.
However, after the newspaper’s initial report on the practice appeared online Friday, BESE President Jim Garvey said he wants BESE to get a second opinion on how the review is being done.
Critics note that the topic the working group is studying is a volatile one.
“What is the private conversation?” Roemer asked. “I don’t care if they are not voting. What are they talking about and who are they talking to.”
Scott Sternberg, a Louisiana media lawyer who represents The Advocate and The Times-Picayune on public meeting issues, said the BESE “workgroup” is a committee under a different name.
“I have been litigating open meetings cases my entire career,” Sternberg said Friday. “I don’t know where they (BESE members) get the idea they can just appoint a committee and change the name to a work group and that will be okay.”
“We will probably ask the attorney general’s office to give us their guidance,” Garvey said in an email to the newspaper. “And will talk to our constituents about their concerns and then reevaluate the situation from there.”
BESE is an 11-member panel that sets policies for about 700,000 public school students statewide.
The review follows two failed bids last year by state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley to revamp how public schools are scrutinized. Brumley proposed changes in how schools are rated, which would have trimmed the number of D- and F-rated schools by setting up a more generous scoring system.
The behind-the-scenes work has its defenders. Brigitte Nieland, director of government relations for the advocacy group Stand For Children, said members are not rewriting accountability rules or taking votes.
“It’s a politically balanced group doing incredibly tedious research, looking at best practices in other states and working with Louisiana Department of Education staff, which will run simulations based on any number of scenarios,” Nieland said in a text message to The Advocate. “I’m impressed that board members are tackling this.”
“They are talking about accountability and therefore we believe there should be more transparency around that conversation,” said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.