Heated N.O. School Board meeting ends in stalemate

An already sharply divided Orleans Parish School Board spent more than five hours in heated public debate this week, split by disagreements over everything from enrollment policy to the future of interim Superintendent Stan Smith to whether or not the district’s anti-bullying policy should make explicit mention of gays and lesbians.

The discussion between board members and the advocacy groups who came to lobby them Tuesday swung sharply from accusations of out-and-out racism to an emotional and at times personal debate over how to protect gay students who face discrimination.

It helped to bring into focus some points of view that had been heretofore somewhat murky, most notably when board member Leslie Ellison was asked about her views on the separation of church and state and declared flatly: “There is no such thing.”

But the board ultimately settled none of the major issues up for discussion. They voted to put off any decision on a contract for Smith, who has come under attack from community groups looking to oust him for his lack of academic credentials and a perception that he hasn’t steered enough of the district’s construction work to minority-owned businesses.

And the board left its bullying policy as is, despite an effort by Ellison to strip it of language enumerating protections for gay and lesbian students. It’s a debate that could be revived if the board decides that it is obliged to tweak the policy to bring it in line with a mostly unrelated new state law.

At least for now, any decision the board makes on leadership or policy will have a direct impact on only a handful of schools in New Orleans, since most are still governed by the Recovery School District, the state agency that took over after Hurricane Katrina, or operate as independent charter schools. But the board’s relatively modest purview did nothing to lower the temperature in the room: Indeed, the vitriol that members of the public hurled at board members — and that board members aimed at one another — underscored how deeply felt the education debate remains in New Orleans.

“What kind of message does it send when ‘white is right,’ ” said Pat Bryant from Justice and Beyond, one of the groups pushing the board to fire Smith. “What kind of message does it send to our children? Everybody can see through this.”

Bryant did not spell out detailed criticisms of the interim superintendent, but his meaning was clear enough. Smith, who is white, took over the district last summer after Darryl Kilbert retired from the job and has faced criticism that he is sabotaging the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which aims to ensure that 35 percent of the value of the district’s contracts goes to minority-owned companies. He has the support of the board’s three white members, who argue that ousting Smith now would destabilize the district while they search for permanent leadership.

Others calling for Smith’s resignation said it wasn’t an issue of race. They zeroed in on Smith’s background as an accountant rather than an educator, reflecting deep suspicions about the self-styled reformers who have flocked to New Orleans in recent years, many of whom have de-emphasized the importance of traditional academic credentials.

“Every day that we have an unqualified person in place our children suffer,” said Danatus King, president of the local NAACP. “Every day we have an unqualified person in place our community suffers.”

Although most speakers called for ousting Smith, some spoke in his favor, including a representative from the civic group Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, who praised Smith’s work as the district’s chief financial officer, and Westley Bayas, from the group Stand for Children.

“Can we get to a place where we’re hiring someone permanent?” Bayas said, reflecting broader frustration from those who feel the board has lost sight of what should be its long-term goals. “We’ve spent the last three months since March arguing over contracts.”

Still, three of the School Board’s black members — board President Ira Thomas, Ellison and Cynthia Cade — have joined the push to get rid of Smith. Cade offered a motion at one point that called for terminating Smith altogether, which failed by a 4-3 vote.

Cade acknowledged that Smith has been a successful financial manager for the district, but argued that the superintendent’s job needs a trained educator, suggesting Chief Academic Officer Rosalynne Dennis, or another credentialed member of the administration.

In the middle of the fight was Nolan Marshall Jr., a black board member who emerged as clearly as ever as the board’s swing vote. Seeming to agonize over the board’s divisions, Marshall looked for compromise where he could get it. He read from a long statement in support of leaving Smith in his job and giving him a new contract to clear up a dispute about whether Smith’s existing agreement was valid when he signed it last year. But Marshall finally offered a successful motion late in the evening to simply table the discussion.

“Right now we have a very divided board, and it is not in the best interests of our school district,” Marshall said. “I believe and I hope that we can get together, table this issue and work toward developing some consensus.”

With that debate over, the board promptly launched into a spirited back-and-forth over the district’s bullying policy.

Noncontroversial changes approved in committee last week would add language required by a new state law calling for a more detailed definition of what actually constitutes bullying. But Ellison, who chairs the policy committee, also tried to strike specific protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students that have been written in board policy since last year.

Again, the board split along racial lines, with Marshall the agonized swing vote. Ellison and Cade argued that any mention of gay or lesbian students would be superfluous if the anti-bullying policy simply applied to all students. Cade mentioned that she had been bullied herself because of her small stature and said she didn’t see why any other group needed special protection, since that might only imply that some other group wasn’t afforded it.

Ellison also made clear that she had religious grounds for challenging the LGBT language. Marshall mentioned that numerous members of Ellison’s church had lobbied him over the issue, concerned in particular at language in the policy that calls for LGBT issues to be discussed in school curriculum. Thomas, who appeared less adamant than either Ellison or Cade on the issue, also took exception to the mention of curriculum.

But the attempt to scrub the LGBT wording drew an impassioned defense from board member Seth Bloom, who is gay and who argued that specific language for LBGT students was justified for much the same reasons that other minorities get protections under civil rights statutes.

After Ellison had read out the proposed changes and Cade spoke in support, Bloom said sharply, “I’m not seconding that,” and asked Cade why she had done a “180” on the issue since the LGBT clause passed last year under former board President Thomas Robichaux.

When Cade reiterated that she saw no need to extend a special protection for LGBT students, Bloom responded, “I just want you to know that you and Gov. Jindal would agree.”

At another point Ellison, who felt Bloom had unfairly compared LGBT-based discrimination to racism, said, “I can’t change my blackness — not at all.”

Bloom pointed out that there are certainly African-Americans who are also gay and feel they don’t have a choice about either.

The board held several votes on the issue, attempting at one point to pass a motion that would leave in place language protecting LGBT students but strip out the wording that mentions curriculum. Ultimately, the board could not pass anything, unable to muster the five votes required to make any policy change. It’s not clear when or if the issue could reemerge, although neither side seemed close to compromise.