Despite pressure from House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and others, leaders of Louisiana's top school board defended their handling of last week's chaotic meeting and said there are no plans to hold a special gathering to discuss mandatory face masks in public schools.

The board spelled out its position in a statement late Sunday night from state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Sandy Holloway, of Thibodaux; vice-president Kira Orange Jones, of New Orleans; and treasurer Ashley Ellis, of Monroe.

They commended how the meeting was run and noted it was a bipartisan vote to adjourn.

Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, had a different take. "Clearly the BESE meeting last week was a disaster," he said in a statement Monday.

BESE voted 8-2 last Wednesday to adjourn its meeting when anti-mask protesters refused to put on face coverings, which are required in public buildings.

"The vote was called after groups of protesters spent hours disrupting the meeting with shouts, outbursts, and refusing to comply with the governor's mask mandate for government buildings," the BESE statement says.

"When forced to make that decision last week, we were left with no choice but to prioritize the safety and health of those in the room over citizens who were refusing to follow the law, adhere to basic rules of order all while putting the health of others at risk," the trio said. "There are no plans to call a special meeting."

BESE was scheduled to debate whether Gov. John Bel Edwards or the board has the final say in ordering students to wear face masks.

Edwards has issued an order that requires K-12 students to do so.

Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an opinion that says BESE, not the governor, has the final say on face mask and other safety issues. Landry's opinion was the last topic on last week's agenda, and was supposed to spark a lengthy public hearing on face mask rules.

Schexnayder said he has asked state lawmakers to contact their BESE members and request that they hold a special meeting.

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"This is an issue that is very important to a large number of parents and needs to be discussed," he said. "Unfortunately, many of the BESE members are not returning calls."  

"Hopefully they do the right thing and call the meeting. If not we will explore other options."

What those options would be is unclear.

Before last week's gathering 63 of the 68 GOP House members, including Schexnayder, asked BESE to consider leaving the mask issue to the 69 school districts.

The room where last week's session was held holds 274 people and many in the audience were not wearing face masks.

"Just as we wouldn't allow this behavior in schools, neither will we tolerate refusal to follow the law, intimidation, bullying tactics and putting the health and safety of attendees at risk during our board meetings," BESE leaders said.

In a separate statement BESE member Preston Castille, who lives in Baton Rouge, praised the board's decision to adjourn last week's gathering and called the protesters "disrespectful, disobedient and unlawful."

"When members of the audience at last week's BESE meeting refused to comply and wear a mask while in a state building, it took courage for my colleagues to make it clear that the audience had a choice: comply with state law or we would adjourn the meeting."

"The audience refused to comply; we adjourned the meeting. It's real simple, everybody. Wear a mask. Comply with the law. Save lives."

Voting to adjourn last week were Holly Boffy, Ashley Ellis, Kira Orange Jones, Belinda Davis, Doris Voitier, Tommy Roque, Preston Castille and Ronnie Morris.

Voting against adjournment were Jim Garvey and Michael Melerine.

Holloway exercised her option as president not to vote.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.