LAFAYETTE — School Board members sharing their opinions about board business with each other by phone is not a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, an attorney told board members Wednesday night during an ethics workshop.
“If you don’t do it, you’re not going to be an effective board member,” said Bob Hammonds, a Baton Rouge attorney who led the School Board member training session that lasted over two hours.
Members Mark Cockerham and Rae Trahan directed questions related to scenarios of phoning board members for opinions or polling them about how they planned to vote.
In June, the board received a visit from 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson over a complaint about similar board behavior related to a proposed extension of Superintendent Burnell Lemoine’s contract.
While the phone calls weren’t a technical violation of the law, which ensures the public is aware of decisions and deliberations that affect public policy, board members’ actions violated the spirit of the law, Harson told members in June.
Cockerham asked for the “proper protocol” for talking to other members about issues outside of a board meeting.
“What if you poll the vote? If you’re calling (Tehmi) Chassion and say, ‘How are you going to vote?’ ” asked Trahan.
“Sometimes board members say who they’re going to vote for — and then they don’t carry through,” Hammonds said. “I encourage you to communicate with each other … if you get together … then that’s problematic.”
Convening a quorum — five or more members — would be a violation if board business is discussed, he clarified. Social gatherings are exempt from the law, he added.
The workshop provided clarity on board members’ authority and on state laws centered on ethics.
“Your authority is when you are sitting in this board meeting. Outside of this room, you do not have any authority,” Hammonds said.
Board member responsibilities include approving a budget and personnel recommendations, adopting policies, reviewing student expulsion decisions and the evaluation and hiring of a superintendent.
Because of the limited authority — which begins and ends with the sound of the president’s gavel — Hammonds advised members, “Don’t ever tell a constituent: I’ll take care of it.”
He also reminded them that they do not have special rights to request information from principals or other staff members that would not be released to the public.
He said he advises principals who encounter board member requests to ask whether they would release the same information to a parent before complying with the request.
“Only one person on the whole staff answers to you — it’s that person right there,” Hammonds said and pointed to Lemoine.
“That principal doesn’t answer to you.”
Hammonds peppered the workshop with true stories of his experiences representing school boards and members.
He told the Lafayette board he’s clocked more than 2,000 meetings and witnessed his share of unprofessional behavior on the board floor, including fistfights and curse words bandied in front of a Girl Scout troop waiting to be recognized during the meeting.
Support from the public will be difficult to foster if board meetings are viewed as “circuses,” Hammonds said.
The “two worst headlines that any board member can get” are centered on alleged violations of ethics and open meetings laws, Hammonds said.
“Those are two things that can erode public confidence more than anything,” Hammonds said.
And without the public’s support, it’s hard to get the job done, he added.
“If you don’t have the support of your public you can’t do anything. You’re neutered as board members,” Hammonds said.
State law requires that board members receive at least six hours of training annually.