Judge: Ejecting teacher from meeting broke law

Janet Mcconnaughey
Associated Press

A Louisiana school board violated the state’s open meetings law by ejecting a teacher who spoke out against giving the superintendent a $30,000 raise, a state judge has ruled.

Judge David Smith also threw out the raise given Jan. 8 to Vermilion Parish Schools Superintendent Jerome Puyau (PEE-oh), who returned to work this month despite a 6-2 school board vote putting him on paid leave.

Neither Puyau nor teacher Deyshia Hargrave, who was told at that meeting that her comments had nothing to do with the agenda and was ordered to leave after she continued to speak, could immediately be reached for comment. School offices are closed for Thanksgiving and Puyau did not respond to an email; Hargrave did not immediately respond to a phone message.

Her removal from the Jan. 8 meeting and her rough, video-recorded arrest sparked outrage across the U.S.

“She was expressing her concerns to the Superintendent regarding a pay raise he would be accepting,” Vermilion Parish Judge David Smith wrote in a ruling signed Nov. 8 and mailed Thursday. “Her comments were most certainly germane to the agenda item ‘Audience Concerns for the Superintendent.’ Not only was she silenced, she was forcibly removed from the meeting by the security guard for the meeting, an off-duty police officer.”

People can be expelled for willfully disrupting meetings, but Hargrave didn’t do that, Smith wrote. “Ms. Hargrave addressed the board respectfully. She was not loud or disruptive.”

Both sides agreed to have him rule based on audio and video recordings and the court reporter’s official transcript of the meeting.

Smith ordered the board to follow the law and board policy about public comments, and to pay litigation costs.

Laura LeBeouf, vice president of the eight-member board, said she was one of three members who voted against the raise and one of four who voted to settle the lawsuit.

“In my heart, I knew it was wrong,” she said in a telephone interview. “We had four board members who persisted in fighting this. … Those four board members put the board in a very difficult situation legally and financially, when they could have agreed to training.”

Board member Chris Hebert’s only comment about the ruling was, “It is what it is.”

The board put Puyau on paid administrative leave in August, but LeBeouf said he returned Nov. 7.

“He returned to work against a board order,” she said.

Hebert confirmed that Puyau had returned to work.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry, who sued the school board, called the ruling a victory for teachers and the public.

“As I said before, every community has a stake in the performance and the governance of its public schools,” Landry wrote in a news release Monday, quoting the lawsuit. “The community’s views and thoughts should be taken into account before any action or discussion on an agenda item occurs.”

Suzanne Breaux, president of the Vermilion Association of Educators, said in a news release, “The Court’s ruling hopefully puts to an end once and for all the issue of the school board’s granting of a new contract to the superintendent under questionable circumstances.”

Puyau’s original contract has two more years to run, Hebert said.