May 4, 2012 06:12
Don't let the sweet Cajun accent fool you: District 3 BESE Representative Lottie Beebe is a feisty grandmother - and she's no stranger to fighting the state education powers that be. Don't let the sweet Cajun accent fool you: District 3 BESE Representative Lottie Beebe is a feisty grandmother - and she's no stranger to fighting the state education powers that be.

Beebe, a former teacher and current supervisor for the St. Martin Parish School Board, has been referred to by The Times-Picayune as perhaps "the last voice of opposition" on a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that's widely known for marching lockstep behind the agendas of Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White.

And when The Independent reached out to the freshman BESE rep. this week for guidance on the newspaper's two-week battle with the state Department of Education over sunshine laws the department is willfully ignoring, she immediately stepped up to help.

The Independent sent a public records request to LDOE's public affairs office on April 24, asking for all correspondence the state agency has received from the U.S. Department of Education regarding Louisiana's No Child Left Behind waiver application. The 26 states seeking relief from the onerous federal NCLB requirements received feedback on their applications from the U.S. Education Department April 17, critiques that came down in the form of a formal letter from the federal government. Read The Ind's May 2 blog, "LDOE foot dragging tramples transparency," for more on the significance of the state's NCLB waiver application and the importance of the feedback from the federal government.

The newspaper has repeatedly asked for a copy of the feds' critique letter, a crucial document that spells out both strengths and weaknesses in Louisiana's alternative plan to improve public education at a state level without the cumbersome federal regulations. Last week, the state education department did not respond to The Ind's inquiry until hours after LDOE officials surpassed the 72-hour legal deadline for fulfilling our records request - and only after we threatened to file a formal complaint against LDOE spokeswoman Rene Greer. The response from LDOE was that "there is no final document to release."

But The Independent resumed its fight Tuesday for a document that DOE says does not exist. After further review of the state's public record laws and discussing the issue with a media attorney, The Independent does not believe the document (and there is a document in the state's possession) falls under any of our state's public record exemptions. The paper also contends that DOE has been in violation of state sunshine laws for an entire week; a state agency should have full understanding of its own law books and what the public is entitled to see.

We contacted Beebe late Thursday evening after LDOE continued to ignore calls and emails from both The Independent and an attorney representing the Louisiana Press Association (As of 12:56 p.m. Friday, LDOE is still refusing to respond). Minutes after she received our email , she had this to say to John White:
Superintendent White,

I am writing to make you aware of a public record's request made by Heather Miller, Staff Writer, the Independent.  She has indicated her request has not been acknowledged by your staff.  This is unacceptable since there is legislation that addresses public records requests in Louisiana.

Ms. Miller has informed me of the following: The Independent has called and emailed both Rene Greer and John White several times over the past 48 hours to no avail. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time the department has demonstrated to The Independent a complete disregard for transparency and the public records statutes that all government agencies in Louisiana must abide by.

Consequently, I am making a formal request that you honor Ms. Miller's request. In fact, I am formally requesting the document outlining the US Department of Education's response to the [NCLB] Waiver and any deficiencies that were identified in the proposal. As a member of BESE District 3, I believe I am entitled to have my information request acknowledged and this information provided to me as soon as possible. I also believe Ms. Miller's request should be fulfilled, and at the very least, an explanation offered as to why her request has not yet been addressed.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Lottie P. Beebe, BESE District 3

"It is disheartening  to learn there is a lack of respect for the public records legislation which should be honored for those individuals making requests," Beebe tells The Ind. "You are not the first to communicate the Louisiana Department of Education's blatant disregard for public records requests. Mr. White and his staff need to be accountable to the public especially when the law dictates compliance."

The Ind has also been in contact with District 7 BESE member Holly Boffy, the Lafayette area rep, as well as BESE President Penny Dastugue. Boffy tells The Ind that she "fully expects" DOE will comply with our records request. Dastugue says in an email Friday morning that she has forwarded the paper's concerns to BESE Executive Director Catherine Pozniak.

The state Attorney General's Office has not responded to The Ind yet on whether the office will assist in our efforts to obtain this public document. The AG's office cannot accept a formal complaint against LDOE because if the newspaper decides to file a civil lawsuit against the state education department, which we may or may not do, the AG's office must represent LDOE.

The Independent will continue to report on this matter until LDOE complies with state law. Check back with our website as the story develops.

Also from Heather Miller