A civil rights group asked a court Tuesday to force the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to vote again on the finalists for the next superintendent of the parish school system even as those two finalists arrived in Baton Rouge for three days of visiting and interviews.

The lawsuit, led by Baton Rouge NAACP President Eugene Collins, alleges the School Board violated the rights of his organization and others to offer public comment during meetings on April 21 and May 21 when the board debated the selection of a new superintendent.

The NAACP also was considering raising concerns about the School Board's original plan for a series of private meals this week between board members and the two finalists, with no more than four of the board's nine members in attendance at a time. An Advocate attorney last week said those meals at a minimum would violate the spirit of the state's Open Meetings law.

The School Board, however, late last week quietly called off those meals.

In its lawsuit, the NAACP claims plaintiffs were wrongly denied three minutes of public comment they ordinarily enjoy and instead limited to “1,000 characters typed into an online platform.” At the April 21 meeting, the board also failed to give 24-hour advance notice, according to the lawsuit.

In holding those meetings, the board invoked a March 13 proclamation by Gov. John Bel Edwards that allowed for virtual meetings due to the novel coronavirus. The proclamation, however, preserved public notice requirements and says that “all efforts shall be made to provide for observation and input by members of the public.”

Collins is joined in the lawsuit by Anita Augustus, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, and Corhonda Corley, an outspoken parent with a child with a disability.

In a separate lawsuit, also filed Tuesday, Collins is demanding the school system quickly hand over emails and text messages the School Board members sent or received during the month of December.

Baton Rouge attorney Donald Hodge is the attorney for both lawsuits.

The first lawsuit has been assigned to state District Judge Janice Clark; the second lawsuit will go before Judge Richard "Chip" Moore.

Collins filed his public records request on May 21, but said he has yet to receive any documents. Collins previously requested and received board member emails and other records sent or received between January and early May. He said he did not receive those records until May 21, some 17 days after he asked for them. Louisiana law gives public bodies up to three business days to supply public records to those who request them.

On May 21, the School Board narrowed the field of finalists from five to two out-of-state educators, Leslie Brown, of Fort Lauderdale, and Nakia Towns, of Chattanooga.

Both Brown and Towns were spending Tuesday visiting schools in Baton Rouge. Wednesday and Thursday will be busy days, packed with a series of interviews.

The board, however, is not planning to select the next superintendent until its regular meeting June 18. The person chosen will replace Superintendent Warren Drake, who is retiring June 30 after five years at the helm.

On Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Brown and Towns will participate in a town hall where they will answer questions posed in advance by the public. On Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Brown, followed by Towns, will sit for formal interviews with the board, each lasting 90 minutes. 

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Both events will be livestreamed and shown on Metro 21. They will take place at the district’s Professional Development Center, 3000 N. Sherwood Forest Drive. Those with questions for the finalists need to submit them in advance of the 5 p.m. Wednesday town hall. They will need to go to the online agenda, click on the item and go to a special public comment page.

In-person attendance will be capped at about 90 people and all will have their temperatures taken upon entrance. Mask-wearing is required and they will be available upon request.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday and Thursday, the finalists are also planning to sit down for a series of “small group superintendent candidate workshops.” The questioning at these four workshops will be led by business and community leaders, as well as parents, school employees and members of local education groups.

Each School Board member is choosing two individuals to attend each meeting. Late Tuesday, the School Board released a list of 53 names of individuals who are to attend these sessions, ranging from active parents such as Matt Diez to former principal Phyllis Crawford to Baton Rouge Area President and Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp.

These workshops, which are taking place at the Louisiana Technology Park at 7117 Florida Blvd., may also be attended by some or all board members, according to the announcement.

One of the NAACP's lawsuits attacks these workshops as “private meetings among selected guests in an attempt to deny public comment.” And the presence of board members, likely a quorum of the board, means that the workshops should be conducted as open meetings, according to the lawsuit.

School Board attorney Gwynn Shamlin said Tuesday the workshops will not be recorded, but will be open to the public, though "seating will limited due to public health concerns."

School Board members originally planned to go further, holding two lunches and one dinner with the finalists. None of those meals would have had five board members in attendance, a quorum which would have forced a public meeting under state law.

Scott Sternberg, a lawyer who represents the Louisiana Press Association as well as The Advocate and is an authority on public records and open meetings law, said the meals, as described in the schedule, resemble a walking or rolling quorum, both of which are illegal under state law. They looked to be intentional attempts to avoid a quorum, which he said was "very concerning."

Towns is chief of staff for Hamilton County schools. She left a career in corporate America in 2010 for a job as a school administrator in Knoxville. She later spent three years with the Tennessee Department of Education. She has never worked as a schoolteacher.

Brown has spent 41 years in education, 12 of them as a classroom teacher and three as principal of a charter school. Since 2013 she’s been chief portfolio services officer for Broward County, where she oversees an array of magnet, charter schools and special programs.

In selecting Brown and Towns, the board passed over two in-house school administrators, Adam Smith and Quentina Timoll, as well as a prominent out-of-state candidate, Marshall Tuck of Los Angeles, who was strongly promoted by a few business and community leaders.

The Advocate has posted online the applications of all the applicants.

The School Board has posted online the video interviews of Brown, Towns and three other semifinalists. The School Board also posted other informational documents on the two finalists, including their plans for what they would do during their first 90 days on the job.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.