New Orleans — The two most pressing issues that will be faced by the soon-to-be elected Orleans Parish School Board will be the selection of a new superintendent and the decision-making process that addresses moving Recovery School District schools back to local control.
Incumbents tout the success of the past four years — turning around a board in financial crisis and schools in academic crisis. Many new to the race disagree with the current direction of school reform and claim further changes that need to be made.
Just one seat of the seven districts is uncontested — that of Seth Bloom in District 5.
Incumbent Democrat Ira Thomas, 55, is a retired police lieutenant who graduated from George Washington Carver High School and studied criminal justice at Delgado Community College and Loyola University. He is enrolled in a master’s program at Southern University of New Orleans, where he works as the chief of police.
He has two children.
“Four years later, we’ve done the job we set out to do,” Thomas said. “I’ve proven that my leadership is effective as a board member,” he said, citing the resolution of fiscal challenges that saved taxpayers millions, securing funds for a school in the lower Ninth Ward, reducing health care premiums for retired workers and significantly raising academic standings.
If elected to a second term, “I will continue the process of improving public education and ensuring that all children receive a quality education,” Thomas said.
Challenger Heidi Lovett Daniels, 41, is also a Democrat. She is a graduate of Eleanor McMain High School and received an undergraduate degree from Xavier University and a master’s degree in education at University of New Orleans. Daniels works as a math professor at SUNO.
She is married to Flozell Daniels and has two children.
Daniels, who served on the school board from 2005-08 but left for family reasons, said she running again because, “We have to have equity in student achievement for all students in all schools.”
With experience in the classroom as well as in training teachers, Daniels said she wants to work for teacher reform and “make teaching a fun and loving profession.”
Daniels also said she hopes to be part of a serious plan to take control of schools back from the RSD with “leadership and compassion” and to ensure fiscal accountability and transparency.
Incumbent Democrat Cynthia Cade is a graduate of Joseph S. Clark High School who received her undergraduate degree from SUNO and began pursuing her master’s degree at UNO. Cade was the executive director of Angel’s Academy for 25 years and continues to work as an educator. Cade has one child.
Cade is running on her eight years of experience as a board member, as well as her 30 years of experience in education in New Orleans.
“I know how to rebuild a school district from scratch after (Hurricane) Katrina, and I want to see that fulfilled,” Cade said. “A lot was accomplished, but we still have a lot to do.”
Cade said she wants to see the return of schools to local control, “so the citizens of New Orleans have an elected board that they can truly hold accountable.” Cade said she wants to continue progress that has lifted the district’s test scores to the second in the state, complete the master plan and the rebuilding and repair of schools, and make sure a superintendent is hired who will “continue to move forward in a positive direction.”
Democrat Dwight McKenna, 71, is a graduate of St. Augustine High School and Xavier University who received his medical degree from Meharry Medical School. He spent two years as a U.S. Army surgeon in Vietnam before working as a surgeon in New Orleans for several decades. McKenna retired from surgery and works as a general practitioner.
He is married to Beverly McKenna and has two children.
McKenna served on the school board from 1986-92 and said he is running again because, “We are witnessing the greatest misuse of government funds” and “watching corporate America under the guise of good education strip public school of their finances and rob teachers of their retirement.”
McKenna expressed concern over what he sees as corruption, nepotism and a lack of transparency and oversight in the school system. After New Orleans was declared a federal disaster, McKenna said that “opportunists” moved in with their eyes on recovery dollars, “lining their pockets at the expense of the children.” McKenna said he would rather see public schools partner with local colleges and universities.
Democrat Durrell Laurent, 26, graduated from St. Augustine High School and received his undergraduate degree at Texas Southern University. Laurent owns his own business, Geaux Group Insurance Advisors, and works as an independent realtor with Century 21.
Laurent said he is running because of his own experiences growing up in New Orleans and seeing the challenges faced by his peers. “Kids are dealing with things socially that we aren’t addressing,” Laurent said.
He also said he was inspired to run by his father, who is an educator.
Laurent said he wants to be a part of recruiting a qualified superintendent, returning eligible schools to local governance and restoring public confidence in the school system. “We need more community engagement in the decision-making process,” Laurent said.
Incumbent Brett Bonin, 40, is a Republican. He is a graduate of Jesuit High School and received his undergraduate and law degree from Loyola University.
Bonin is president-elect of the Louisiana School Board Association. He runs his own law practice and is married to Marybeth Bonin. They have two children.
Bonin said his community involvement began when as a hospital volunteer while still in high school. After many years volunteering with the New Orleans Police Department’s crisis unit and training new recruits, Bonin said he realized education was the city’s most pressing need when he crossed paths with recruits who had high school diplomas but were “functionally illiterate.”
Bonin calls his serving on the board a “labor of love” and said there is a great team in place that he doesn’t want broken up.
“Four years ago, people said the board was impossible to fix and asked the question, ‘Should we get rid of the board?’ ” Bonin said. “Four years later, no one is asking that question — the board has fixed what people said was unfixable.”
Bonin calls himself a “huge charter supporter” and said he would like the interim superintendent, chief financial officer Stan Smith, to have the permanent job.
Democrat Sarah Newell Usdin, 43, received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University and her master’s degree from LSU. She is the founder and worked as the CEO of New Schools New Orleans, until taking a leave of absence to campaign. If elected, Usdin said she will resign as a staff member. Usdin also worked as the executive director for Teach for America.
She is married to Tommy Usdin and has two children.
Usdin said running for the school board was the “natural next progression,” “having spent my entire professional career making sure all kids get an excellent public education.” Usdin said that while decisions are often made based on their impact on adults, she wants to see “every decision based on the question, ‘Will this help the students get a better education.’”
Usdin said she is qualified based on her “deep understanding” of schools and school leadership, her leadership in educational improvement for 20 years, her executive skills and her abilities as a “problem solver.” She said wants transparency and resources distributed “fairly and equitable — no matter what type of school,” with the maximum amount reaching classrooms.
Karran Harper Royal, 49, has no party affiliation. She graduated from Warren Easton High School and works as an advocate for disabled and challenged children in New Orleans public schools. She also works as a consultant for education policy.
Royal is married to Kenneth Royal and has two children.
Royal said she became involved in education first as an “ü ber-involved public school parent.” Royal said she wants to “redefine reform,” in an atmosphere she describes as “school reform gone wrong,” saying that “the system is just as broken as before” and that she doesn’t feel “enough has been done for families.”
Royal said she wants to see “democratically controlled education,” with publicly elected boards at all schools that better engage parents and community. She said the school board is a natural progression in the work she does helping families navigate a system that she says is in chaos.”
“We need quality choices for all kids,” Royal said, whether students are highly gifted or have disabilities.
Incumbent Democrat Lourdes Moran, 54, graduated from Redemptorist High School and attended UNO. Moran works as an accountant, is married to Scott Moran and has three children.
Moran has served on the board for the past eight years, experience that she describes as invaluable. It’s been a learning curve, Moran said.
“I’ve forged many relationships needed to unify the district,” she said.
While the first years following Katrina were focused on recovery, as the chair of the budget and finance committee, Moran touts the board’s success in “guiding the district to financial stability and achieving the highest bond rating in the state.”
Moran said she knows firsthand that for parents, the system is “cumbersome to say the least.” Moran said she wants to see more transparency with public dollars, professional development for teachers, parent involvement and assurance that the system is serving all children, especially those with special needs.
Democratic challenger Leslie Ellison, 46, graduated from O. Perry Walker High School and received her undergraduate degree from SUNO. She works as an education advocate and is the owner of The Ellison Group, an education consulting firm. Through her work, Ellison said she has gained important experience working with parents, youths and others to overcome the education system’s challenges.
Ellison said she has a “very clear understanding of parents and the community’s need to be involved’’ and that her work in civic improvement, education and community and economic development qualify her for the position. Ellison listed her priorities as “hiring a superintendent, advancing a vision that places children and education first, promoting community engagement and transparency throughout the decision-making process and providing trusted leadership that advocates for excellence and fairness in schools.”
Democratic incumbent Woody Koppel, 43, received his undergraduate degree at Sewanne and earned his teaching certificate at Tulane University. Koppel taught at New Orleans public schools for seven years and works as a real estate broker.
He is married to Kristen Koppel. They have two children and are expecting a third.
Koppel said he knows what works and what doesn’t from his experience teaching first-graders.
By running a successful business, Koppel said, he has valuable knowledge about finances. During his time on the board, he said, it “turned the financial rate around, going from $400 million in debt to the highest bond rating in the state.” He said he will continue to “fight to keep the finances in order” by being frugal and making sure the “precious few resources” accomplish end results.
Koppel also cited significant improvement in test scores and graduation rates.
Koppel said he has had success in working with people on opposing sides of issues to solve problems and get results. For the next term, Koppel said he wants to continue growth in charters and ensure “high standards and accountability, while at the same time preserving autonomy.”
Democratic challenger Jason Coleman, 35, graduated from McDonogh 35 High School and earned his undergraduate degree at Southern University at Baton Rouge. He is founder and president of Pro Line Management, a business that acts as an inter-governmental representative for New Orleans taxicab drivers and is a consultant for transportation agencies.
He is married to Christine Coleman and has one child.
Coleman said he wants to see resources shared equally and equality in education, with good schools in every part of the city.
Coleman said he wants to see more resources devoted to classrooms, especially kindergarten through sixth grade and less spent on salaries for top administrators. He said he wants a superintendent with inner-city experience who can be a positive role model for students.
Coleman said he supporters charter schools, and his daughter attends one.
As a businessman, Coleman said that he knows “how to make things work with less resources.” Coleman said his goal is to put children first and avoid “politics as usual.” It is key, he said, that the board always be truthful with the public.
Democratic incumbent Thomas Robichaux, 43, received his undergraduate degree from UNO and earned a law degree at Chapman University. Robichaux works as attorney and has one child.
Robichaux said he is running again because he wants to see improvement in education remain on a permanent path to success.
“We made so much amazing progress restoring and recovering decades of neglect, but there is still so much to do,” he said.
Robichaux said his past four years on the board and experience as a constitutional and government attorney is important to understanding “massive change in governmental structure.” He said he is an advocate of anti-bullying efforts and wants to see the district achieve national academic ranking in the next four years.
“I will continue efforts to keep corruption, patronage and politics out of schools and focus on education,” Robichaux said.
Independent challenger Kwame Smith, 42, graduated from John F. Kennedy High School and earned his undergraduate degree at Xavier University. Smith received his teaching certificate from Wayne State University. He worked as a teacher for 17 years in Detroit Public Schools and continues to work as an educator.
Smith has five children.
He said his experience in the classroom is vital and brings knowledge about how policies affect students, teachers and parents.
If elected, Smith said he will work to create a better support system for students who lack resources and are not sufficiently served by the system.
“We cannot ignore the segment of the community that is still struggling,” he said.
While the open enrollment model works for some, Smith said, it does not work for everyone.
“I want to see schools that service the community instead of a community that services the schools,” he said.
He said he would like to see a re-evaluation of the function of charter schools and more schools back under local control.
Democratic challenger Nolan Marshall Jr., 62, graduated from St. Augustine High School and studied at Loyola University and UNO before taking over the family business. He works as a photographer and in a business that sells class rings, caps and gowns to schools. He is married to Diane Marshall and has three children.
“Everything you can name, I’ve done volunteering with schools,” Marshall said, listing his 30 years of involvement in alumni groups, as an advocate and serving on various boards. “I have a great deal of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and I want to go to a level where I can have an impact and make a difference,” Marshall said.
Marshall said he wants to see schools put more emphasis on teaching children to become good citizens and instilling values of community service and integrity instead of focusing solely on career and college preparations.
“We need to do more than prepare kids to go to work,” Marshall said. “We need to help out kids grow as individuals.”
Marshall said he wants to see an education system that is fair and equitable.
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