NEW ORLEANS — At last month’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting, Rachel Guidry was hoping that she and other parents would have a chance to tell board members about the qualities they wanted to see in a new superintendent.
But while they spoke briefly, she said it seemed to them that no one was listening — the meeting was consumed by attention-getting and controversial last-minute agenda items that ultimately went nowhere.
At the end of nearly four hours, the rest of the board decided that President Ira Thomas’ attempt to nullify the contracts of Interim Superintendent Stan Smith and Deputy Superintendent of Charter School Kathleen Padian was without merit.
It was discouraging, Guidry said, for parents who took the time to go to the meeting and who are working with the nonprofit Stand for Children to learn how to better advocate for high-quality leaders and schools for their children.
The February meeting was the first regular meeting for the new board, as the January meeting was held at the same time as the inauguration and didn’t follow the typical format or duration.
During the fall 2012 campaign, nearly every candidate running said that selecting a superintendent was at the top of their priority list.
Stan Smith, the district’s former chief financial officer, was appointed as interim superintendent on May 17. In a February phone interview with Smith, he said that while he intends to assist with the transition, he did not feel that he was able to make the long-term commitment needed for the future of the position.
Smith said that he wants to ensure that, following a 2005 school board that was for all intents and purposes bankrupt, things continue moving forward in the current direction of vastly improved finances.
At the February meeting, there was a brief discussion about sending out a request for proposals for a new superintendent.
But little else has been said about the search during a time that many see as critical for forward movement following seven years of sweeping reform — and at a time when the majority of the city’s schools are rated “D” or “F” by the state.
There’s been enough time since Hurricane Katrina to effectively use data to improve all schools for all students, Guidry said.
The number of closures and takeovers in the past few months is of concern to Guidry, who said that she thinks leaders lack vision on what constitutes a good school.
There’s a lot of new bureaucracy, Guidry said, but not a community-centered common view on how education can be improved.
“This particular school board lacks focus thus far,” said Guidry, who says she’s concerned about the board’s ability to select a superintendent based on the lack of a unified vision or agenda at the meeting.
New board member Sarah Usdin said Wednesday that she thinks it is incredibly important to have a great superintendent.
“I’m looking forward to having conversations with the board about that process and find the individual that best meets the needs of students,” Usdin said.
To date, however, Usdin said that conversation has not happened. “There has been no formal board discussion,” she said.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the search.
Guidry said that she and other parents have discussed a list of traits they would like to see in a new superintendent.
“We want someone who can foster positive, productive relationships within the board to move forward with a clear-cut agenda that works for kids,” Guidry said.
It’s also important for the new leader to build bridges with the Recovery School District and the numerous non-elected charter boards, she said.
Parents want someone who understands the culture, can cross social barriers and is “socially competent, and isn’t afraid to deal with racial bias and income gaps,” she said.
Guidry said the parents also welcome fresh ideas. “We want a superintendent who is not burnt out and is not taking the job because it’s the next step on the ladder. We want them to take it because it’s their passion.”
And, she said most importantly, someone with a clear focus on a single question: What is best for the kids?