Two East Baton Rouge School Board members are claiming the formation of “working groups,” where a mix of board members and administrators meet in private to discuss the budget, charter school policy and other issues potentially violate Louisiana's Open Meeting Law.

School Board President Mike Gaudet, who said he formed the groups in hopes of accelerating action on a number of thorny issues, now says he’s open to converting these groups into formal committees with open meetings and published agendas. But he continues to defend them as “nothing nefarious.”

“I felt since I’ve been on the board there were many, many issues that were not moving forward at a pace they needed to be,” Gaudet said. “And there were many, many issues where because the board had had no input before it came to the board, the board didn’t have a decent chance to shape the policy.”

The board has only one formal committee, a committee of the whole, which meets on the first Thursday of the month to debate all board business. Recommendations made that night are then ratified two weeks later at the board’s regular board meeting.

In 2009, at the insistence of then Superintendent John Dilworth, the board replaced its standing committees with the committee of the whole. Gaudet, who joined the board in 2017 and became its president in January, said he’s never liked the practice.

“I am all for making formal committees,” Gaudet said on Thursday. “I think that is a good thing, if that is the wish of the board.”

Gaudet started forming the working groups in late January after a School Board retreat and said three remain active.

Since there are never five members present, which would create a quorum of the nine-member board, the working group can legally meet in private, Gaudet contended. In addition, he said, all the matters discussed at the working groups get discussed again at the committee of the whole.

David Tatman, whom Gaudet replaced as president in January, disagreed and did so in sharp terms.

“No one knows what’s on the agenda when they happen,” Tatman said on Thursday. “You can’t go to the meeting because if you do you’ll create a quorum, and then you’ll clearly violate the Open Meetings law. The public doesn’t have any access to this at all, so they don’t know.”

Tatman, who has served on a couple of working groups, said he reads state law differently than Gaudet. By appointing the members to the working groups himself, Gaudet has effectively formed committees that should meet in public, Tatman said.

“If we’re not sure about it, we could ask for an Attorney General’s opinion,” Tatman suggested.

Another board member, Connie Bernard, expressed similar sentiments.

“Make the working group an official group, advertise it and make it open to the public,” said Bernard, who served the board’s vice president in 2017 and 2018.

In an interview Friday, Gaudet said he’s heard minor criticism of the working groups before, but was not aware until Thursday how much they concerned Tatman and Bernard. He said he hopes to talk to Tatman and get a better feel for his concerns.

While defending the working groups, Gaudet said he doesn’t want the perception to take hold that school system is violating the law and is open to making changes.

“I have no preconceived notions,” he said. “I’m just trying to get an effective board process where things can happen.”

At the same time, Gaudet said, he’s worried about creating too many formal committees, making it difficult to get enough board members to attend consistently.

“We are only nine members,” he said. “We can only slice ourselves so many ways.”

The criticism over working groups flared up during a discussion Thursday about whether the board should allow Superintendent Warren Drake to hire an outside appraiser to assess all school properties.

Drake is seeking this authority as the school system embarks on more than 20 major construction projects green-lighted by voters in 2018. The idea is to help in the hunt for new property to build new schools or expand other ones by making it easier to sell or trade existing school property.

Drake asked for this authority months ago, but the board has yet to act. Earlier this month, Drake narrowed his request to just 10 properties, but the deadlock continued. The debate has pitted board members who see this as a no-brainer against those suspicious of what Drake’s administration is really up to.

Tatman is in the first camp: “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to know what our properties are worth.”

To help find a way forward, Gaudet asked a newly formed working group that’s focused on academics and facilities to take on the appraisal issue. But the only meeting it held was called at the last minute so a couple of board members weren’t able to attend and the ones who did attend left unconvinced.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson supported letting the working group chew over the appraisal issue longer. She said the concerns she and other board members have are part of a larger set of concerns.

“We went over this a few months ago and back then it was about a lack of transparency, a lack of trust, a feeling of hidden agendas, some board members having more information than others of the process,” Ware-Jackson said.

Tatman response: “Transparency. I’ve heard that word 13 times in the last couple of minutes,” he said. “And let me say to you, these working groups, that’s not transparent.”

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.