In its next term, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) is poised to have more control over the business of public education than it has had for more than a decade — at a crucial time in the history of New Orleans' schools. Paradoxically, fewer than half of New Orleans voters will have any opportunity to decide who makes those decisions, because only three of the seven OPSB races will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
All of the city's Recovery School District schools are slated to return to oversight by the OPSB during the coming three years, with their individual charter structures intact. The OPSB has drafted a $20 million plan to unify the two districts, but many of the details have yet to be drawn.
The vast majority of New Orleans' public schools were placed under state control via the Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina in response to "failing" grades for the schools. In recent years, pressure has mounted to put all local public schools back under the authority of the school board, which has steadily improved the district's finances and bond rating.
For many parents and education activists, the primary change involved in the return of schools to the control of the OPSB is that the governing body overseeing them will be locally elected rather than an agency comprised of unelected appointees based in Baton Rouge. While day-to-day management of the schools will remain with the charter organizations, those organizations will answer to the OPSB instead of the Recovery School District — and the OPSB will have increased control over many centralized services, such as enrollment, discipline, special education and more.
Two of the board's seven seats will be held by incumbents who were re-elected without opposition. Retired teacher John Brown Sr. will continue to represent New Orleans East in the District 1 seat. Sarah Usdin, founder of the New Schools for New Orleans nonprofit that supports charter schools, will hold onto the District 3 seat that covers Mid-City, Lakeview and the lakefront.
Meanwhile, two newcomers will join the board without having to endure contested elections. Urban League of Greater New Orleans executive Ethan Ashley won the Gentilly-based District 2 seat after incumbent Cynthia Cade was disqualified for failing to file taxes. Ben Kleban, founder of the New Orleans College Prep charter network, will assume the Uptown-based District 5 seat after incumbent Seth Bloom chose not to run for re-election and the other contender, Eldon Anderson, withdrew.
That leaves only three contested races: District 4, which is mostly based in Algiers but also includes the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny; District 6, which covers the Uptown/Carrollton area; and District 7, a diverse district ranging from the Central Business District through Treme into the 7th Ward. All the candidates are Democrats.
Incumbent Leslie Ellison, an education activist, faces Walter Perique Umrani of the New Orleans Peacekeepers, a group that addresses behavioral issues in schools. (Attorney Morris "Moe" Reed Jr. had filed to challenge Ellison for the seat, but announced he was suspending his campaign in August to focus on his law career following a controversy over comments he made on Facebook about police shootings.)
The board will oversee not only the unification of central services such as enrollment and discipline, but also negotiations over specific charter-school contracts, Ellison said. That work is already underway, she said, and will continue the gains already shown by the district. "You can always improve, but I'm seeing a lot of adjustments being made to accommodate the diverse community that we serve," Ellison said.
Umrani declined Gambit's call and asked for questions by email. He did not respond by press time.
Incumbent Woody Koppel, a real estate developer, faces a single≈challenger, David Alvarez, who runs the educational consulting company Evaluation Insight and serves in the leadership of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association.
Koppel has support from much of the city's political and civic leadership. He says his focus in the next four years will be ensuring an "orderly transition" of RSD schools back to OPSB control and making sure all are operating according to the same standards. Individual schools should report their finances the same way, he says, adding that the board must closely monitor the condition and lifespan of all school buildings. He also anticipates issues such as bus wait times, admissions and holiday calendars as unification unfolds. "Everything falls into this one unification argument. When everybody's in it together, I think there will be a lot more camaraderie," Koppel said.
Alvarez, who touts endorsements from the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee as well as local teachers' and workers' unions, said that while the school board incumbents campaign on the growth in the local schools' performance scores, those numbers overlook students' needs that are still unmet. Rather than disposing of its empty buildings, the school board should be more creative in using them to add more schools and new models to underserved neighborhoods, Alvarez said. "We have to quit listening to certain narratives as though they are ultimate universal truths, when we have yet to bring about the system-wide improvement that we should expect," Alvarez said.
Incumbent Nolan Marshall Jr. faces two challengers: Alvin Crusto Jr. and Kwame Smith.
Smith, a McDonogh 35 High School teacher who ran against Marshall four years ago, said he wanted to seek the seat again in order to reduce the board influence of special interests such as charter operators. The unification process has ceded too much power to the unelected charter boards instead of the OPSB, he said, and the enrollment zones are too large to serve neighborhoods.
"We should not only be looking at shifting failing schools to another charter," Smith said. "The portfolio model may work in some cases, but not all. You can't think that you're just going to reproduce what you're doing at one school at another school, and there's not enough honest discussion around that."
Crusto, a retired teacher and school leader with decades of experience in Orleans Parish schools, said he wants to see stronger control over disciplinary policy to reduce expulsions of black males, as well more support for special-education services, major improvements to the district's "messed up" transportation system, and better access to neighborhood schools. He decided to run, he said, because of what he saw as subpar representation on the board over the last decade.
"They only operated nine schools, which showed a little bit of increase, but I don't think it was enough to say we did a great job," Crusto said.
Like the other incumbents, Marshall said his top priority is policy that will accompany unification of the schools. For example, he wants to examine OPSB policies regarding geographical preferences for admissions, perhaps allowing schools in underserved areas to take more neighborhood children and reduce reliance on busing as well as directing more money back to classrooms. Crucial to the process, Marshall said, is ensuring community members feel they have a say in the return to local control.
"I'm pleased with the fact that it's happening. It may not be happening the way I think is best, but that doesn't matter," Marshall said. "We are where we are, and we are in the process of unifying the district, which is the most important thing."