Orleans Parish School Board antics harken back to pre-Katrina politics

The superintendent’s job is under threat. The School Board is split. Civic groups, frustrated by the distraction, look on aghast. It could be 1997 or 2002 or 2004 but it isn’t. It’s 2013, and the Orleans Parish School Board is once again must-see public access television.

It’s been a long slide into acrimony after years of relative quiet, beginning with a fight early last year over who would take over as board president and only intensifying after elections reshuffled the board’s makeup in the fall.

This month, board President Ira Thomas brought things to a crescendo with a Friday afternoon news conference, denouncing interim superintendent Stan Smith and calling for his resignation, though the School Board has yet to start looking in earnest for a permanent replacement.

Shifting support

What’s behind all this, of course, depends on whom you speak with, but the divisions that have surfaced over the past year or so could shift how the next phase of the battle over public education plays out in New Orleans.

To fans of the city’s charter school movement, what’s going on at the School Board has only served to erase any second thoughts about the state takeover that followed Hurricane Katrina, which left the board with a rump district made up of only the highest-performing schools and placed most campuses within the Recovery School District, a state turnaround agency.

“To give them control of the schools again would be a tragedy,” said Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who served on the School Board through its pre-Katrina financial implosion and sometimes still tunes in for board meetings. “I’m going to wind up throwing something at the screen, it makes me so mad.”

The more people feel that way, the shakier the future of the School Board could become.

A year ago, sentiment in education circles looked like it was trending in the other direction. The Recovery District was never supposed to be a permanent fix. With test scores up, state-governed schools had begun to earn the option of switching back to local control. Important behind-the-scenes players like former School Board member Leslie Jacobs, who helped engineer the Recovery District in the first place, got behind a push to find candidates for School Board elections last fall, joined by the city’s university presidents and civic groups.

If the School Board could pull together, the thinking went, more of the academically eligible charters in the Recovery District might be comfortable returning. Conceivably, the state Legislature could fashion a compromise that would bring every school back while ensuring a level of autonomy that principals have gotten used to under state auspices.

That’s all beginning to seem less likely. Thomas and some of his fellow School Board members have been trying to fire interim Superintendent Stan Smith because of the way he’s been managing construction contracts, arguing that minority-owned companies aren’t getting enough of the work.

But the prospect of firing an interim superintendent over who gets contracts has brought back memories from more than a decade ago, when the district went through eight different leaders in 10 years and the city’s political factions vied for School Board seats in order to corral some of the of the district’s $500 million-plus budget.

Part of the idea behind allowing schools autonomy as charters was to separate them from the city’s contentious politics.

“This shows that this School Board is not capable today of assuming control, because we’re going to be back in the same old model that we were in before Katrina,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, who chairs the education committee in the state Senate.

He agrees that minority-owned companies should get contracts, but argues that some School Board members have placed that goal above students.

Those on the other side of the debate see more than a note of condescension in that argument, a sense that they’re being told, “You can have your schools back but only on our terms.”

Among those who have never reconciled themselves to the state takeover or the charter movement, there are some who would rather see the School Board fight it out than cooperate or compromise with the Recovery District.

In both the state takeover and the district’s handling of contracts, they see potentially racist attitudes, and they want a superintendent who shares their priorities.

Pat Bryant, an organizer with a relatively new group called Justice and Beyond, approached the interim superintendent last month at a groundbreaking ceremony and said something along the lines of, “Good morning Mr. Smith, we’ve got a Mack truck with your name on it.”

Smith, shaken up, filed a police report, but Bryant says the remark was meant to let Smith know that his group would be coming after him politically.

And it has, firing off a pair of letters that urged Thomas and other School Board members to get Smith out of the job immediately, without waiting to find a permanent superintendent. Another group, called the Alliance for Minority Contractors, as well as the McDonogh 35 alumni association, also wrote the School Board criticizing Smith.

Bryant did not want to comment for the record, preferring to let the letters speak for themselves. Signed by the Rev. Dwight Webster, the pastor at Christian Unity Baptist Church in Treme, and the Rev. Willie Calhoun, who has been active in education debates, the letters call for Smith’s ouster, employing the language of the Civil Rights Movement.

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., the latest missive from the group reads, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Race issue

The issue of race has permeated School Board proceedings for more than a year. Thomas, who is black, first accused fellow School Board members of racism in early 2012, after trying and failing to win the School Board presidency against a white rival, Thomas Robichaux.

After the fall elections, the School Board returned to a black majority and put Thomas in charge. One of his first acts was to try and nullify Smith’s contract.

The School Board’s white members — Woody Koppel, Sarah Newell Usdin and Seth Bloom — have argued for leaving Smith in place and moving ahead with the search for his replacement. Cynthia Cade and Leslie Ellison, who are black, have joined Thomas in calling for Smith’s ouster. Nolan Marshall Jr., the fourth black member and the School Board’s swing vote, came down against removing Smith after intense lobbying from both sides.

Personal disputes inside the district have also played a role in dividing School Board members, although they remain somewhat opaque. It’s become clear that Smith and the district’s head of facilities, Herman Tate, are at odds. After Thomas wrapped up the press conference at which he asked Smith to resign, Tate approached Thomas, shook his hand and said, “Thank you.” Armer Bright, who heads the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprises office, attended as well.

For his part, Smith says that he is committed to the district’s goals for awarding contracts to minorities, even if some projects haven’t matched the School Board’s 35 percent target. He points out that the disadvantaged business program is relatively new, less than a year old.

“We’re working with contractors to get good DBE participation he said,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

Whatever is feeding the discord, some worry that infighting on the School Board, as well as outright conflict between the board the Recovery District, could have real consequences and potentially hurt students in the long run.

Search for leader continues

Erika McConduit, interim president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans said she’s heard conflicting reports about whether the district is following though on its commitments to hire minority contractors, a goal her group has been pushing strongly. But she worries that open conflict on the School Board could hamstring the search for leadership.

“I hope we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” she said. “I want a strong, quality leader.”

Seven months into the School Board’s term, the district hasn’t settled yet on a search firm to look for a new superintendent. Any potential candidate will be looking at an employment situation already complicated by the Recovery District and now marred by racial disputes. Neither Thomas, nor the outside groups pressuring Smith to resign, have said publicly who should replace him.

And some of the education and civic groups that have tried to engage with the School Board feel that members have fumbled their first big test: managing the city’s new common enrollment system.

Having faced years of accusations that charter schools pick and choose which students they let in, the Recovery District launched a new enrollment system called the OneApp last year, allowing families to rank their top choices and assigning them to a school based on available seats. But without the Orleans Parish School Board campuses participating in the OneApp, parents would still have multiple enrollment systems to navigate, particularly if they want a shot at one of the city’s exclusive magnet schools, which are still governed by the board.

Last year the School Board committed to joining the OneApp in principle, folding its five traditional schools into the system and tweaking board policy so that the dozen or so charters under its purview would have to join when their charter contracts come up for renewal.

But with the first round of OneApp assignments this year, a backlash ensued. Administrators at McDonogh 35 High School brought out what looked like the entire football team to the School Board’s June meeting. Students took the microphone and argued that the OneApp would assign students to the school who aren’t up to McDonogh 35’s standards. The principal at Ben Franklin Elementary School complained that she couldn’t be sure that students assigned through the OneApp would register on time and show up on the first day of classes.

In the midst of boos and catcalls, the School Board voted unanimously to establish a new registration deadline of July 8, giving 600 families just a couple of weeks to cobble the paperwork together or lose their place.

A coalition of civic groups called Forward New Orleans, which had gotten five of the School Board’s seven members to sign a pledge committing to a common enrollment system during the elections, called the move blatantly unfair to students who had been promised seats. They urged the School Board to reverse course, but without success.

Coalition members and other groups argue that if the board is to regain schools, it should commit to taking all comers, rather than accepting only those families who have the wherewithal to make registration deadlines while the rest land at Recovery District schools.

“If you really want to be the governing entity for all schools, you have to take responsibility for educating all of the kids,” said Michael Stone, from the group New Schools for New Orleans. “By saying that kids have to register by July 8, you’re basically saying there’s a whole class of kids we’re pushing to the other governing entity. We are refusing to take responsibility for them.”