A review of records of the board of directors of Hynes Charter School has revealed that two board members may have violated state ethics laws by failing to recuse themselves from votes on the school’s partnership with the University of New Orleans (UNO) to open a new K-8 campus.
The board members in question, Janice Janz and Helene Derbigny, are both employees of UNO. Janz is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice in the department of Education and Human Development. Derbigny is a Teacher in Residence in Curriculum and Instruction and coordinates the university’s student teaching program.
As the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools explains in an overview of state ethics laws regarding conflicts-of-interest, charter school board members are prohibited from participating in any transaction between the school and their employer, meaning that they must recuse themselves from votes on those transactions.
Nevertheless, minutes from Hynes board meetings stretching all the way back to December 2017 show that Janz and Derbigny repeatedly failed to recuse themselves from votes on agenda items involving the Hynes-UNO partnership and therefore likely violated state law.
Here’s a breakdown of each instance in which Janz and/or Derbigny failed to recuse themselves due to a conflict-of-interest:
Hynes Board Meeting: December 4, 2017
At the December 2017 meeting of the Hynes board, members were asked to approve a “conceptual framework of replicating Hynes Charter School on the campus of the University of New Orleans.” Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas made a presentation to the board in which she outlined the benefits for the UNO, which included “expanded research and observation opportunities with elementary students” for “next generation teachers.”
According to minutes from this meeting, both Janz and Derbigny were present and voted to “approve and allow Prinicpal Douglas to pursue the opportunity further.”
Hynes Board Meeting: February 26, 2018
At their February 2018 meeting, Hynes board members were asked to vote on a resolution to approve the submission of a packet of “intent to replicate” documents to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) for the new Hynes-UNO campus.
According to minutes from this meeting, both Janz and Derbigny voted to approve the resolution to allow Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas to submit the packet to OPSB.
Hynes Board Meeting: August 6, 2018
The August 2018 meeting of the Hynes board meeting was particularly interesting (and by that I mean, unintentionally hilarious).
Minutes from the meeting show that Janz and Derbigny once again failed to recuse themselves from voting to approve an agreement between the school and UNO. In this case, it was a letter of intent (seen below) with university to pursue a long-term lease to property on UNO’s Lakefront Campus where they would construct a new facility to house the new Hynes-UNO expansion school.
At the same meeting, the board also was asked to approve and submit a “Board Governance Assurance Form” to OPSB, in which the board acknowledged its responsibility to comply with state laws and policies on charter school management and affirmed that each board member had completed a one-hour ethics training course offered by the Louisiana Board of Ethics.
Ironically, just minutes after they most likely violated state ethics laws, Janice Janz offered a motion to authorize the board chair to complete and sign the Board Governance Assurance Form, which was seconded by Helene Derbigny.
Hynes Board Meeting: October 29, 2018
Although Helene Derbigny did not attend the October 2018 meeting of the Hynes board, Janz voted to approve a motion allowing Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas to officially open the new Hynes-UNO school, beginning with three kindergarten classes, in the fall of 2019.
According to minutes from the meeting, the vote followed a series of presentations on various aspects of the replication plan, including one from Adams & Reese attorney Lee Reid, who explained that the children of UNO employees would receive an enrollment preference at the new campus.
Unfortunately, Reid didn’t draw on his knowledge of the law to advise Janz to recuse herself from the vote due to her clear conflict-of-interest.
Hynes Board Meeting: January 14, 2019
Minutes from the January 2019 meeting of the Hynes board indicate that Helene Derbigny was once again absent. However, that didn’t stop her colleague, Janice Janz, from voting to approve a memorandum of understanding with UNO, which detailed the roles and responsibilities of both parties in opening the new Hynes expansion school.
Process and perceptions matter
As I detailed in my previous post on this issue, there has been a concerted effort by officials of both Hynes and OPSB to avoid public scrutiny and discussion of the plan to give the children of UNO employees an edge in the admissions process at the new Hynes campus.
When asked directly about the admissions agreement by WWL’s Caresse Jackman, Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas straight-up lied, claiming that discussions with UNO were in the preliminary stages, when in fact they had already concluded an agreement.
When OPSB officials announced that a new Hynes campus was opening last fall, they assiduously avoided mentioning that an admissions preference was part of the deal (and documents show they had been in discussions with Hynes about it since early 2018). In fact, the first time district officials acknowledged they were planning to allow Hynes to give preference to children of UNO employees was at OPSB’s Accountability Committee meeting on Tuesday. (Nevertheless, in an unanimous vote, the committee advanced the plan for consideration by the full board this Thursday.)
Now comes the question of whether members of Hynes’ board violated state ethics laws in approving this partnership with UNO. When combined with the lying and overall lack of transparency, the whole thing looks shady. If OPSB approves this plan nonetheless, they may make folks at UNO and Hynes happy, but they will further erode the trust and goodwill of the citizens they serve, many of whom (with good reason) already believe that the system is rigged. They will also give added credibility to the malcontents and paid activists who appear at every OPSB meeting to spout lies and conspiracy theories and harangue the board.
If OPSB is truly committed to equity, transparency, and good governance, they should hit the pause button on this plan, stop making exceptions to the rules we have in place, and engage with the community in an open and honest fashion.