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Big Changes at the School Board 

Last week's sudden change in leadership at the Orleans Parish School Board sent a signal that the forces of reform are still in charge and that supporters of Public Schools Superintendent Tony Amato have the backing they need -- on and off the board -- to keep the chief's reforms alive and on track.

The move to oust former president Ellenese Brooks-Simms came suddenly, but not out of left field. It had been brewing for months, say sources on the board. The long and short of it is that Brooks-Simms had been micro-managing -- or attempting to micro-manage -- Amato, who clearly knows what he's doing and doesn't need a handler.

That is not to say that Brooks-Simms had bad intentions. To the contrary, there's no doubt that she wants what's right and what's best when the issue is about students or curriculum. It was more a matter of style.

But when the time came for a change, the moves were made quickly and decisively. Business leaders who have been helping the board and Amato stepped in, along with several key board members, to line up the votes for new board President Cheryl Mills. They started last Monday morning. By that evening's meeting, they had the votes to put Mills in the president's chair -- so much so that Brooks-Simms made the motion to elect Mills and the vote was unanimous.

Behind the scenes, they weren't exactly holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Then again, as school board meetings go, it was the next best thing.

What now?

Things now move on two fronts. On one front, Mills has the chance to show that she can not only unite and lead the board, but also that she can lead the reform effort that's trying to save local public schools. The agents of change are taking a bit of a chance themselves on Mills, because her history with fellow board members has been rocky at times. She's been in the penalty box for a while, and now she has a chance to get back in the game in a big way. She has to start by backing Amato -- and by letting him do what he knows best how to do.

On another front, state education officials are preparing to take over several "failing" schools in the local system. The takeover was authorized by a constitutional amendment voters approved overwhelmingly last October. It was an easy sell because, on paper, anything that represented a change from the status quo seemed to make more sense than the status quo.

Now reality has set in. Top staffers at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has the new takeover authority, are not sure where to start. So many failing schools, so little time. They are looking at troubled school systems in other parts of the country, systems that have tried similar approaches. They are talking once again to the University of New Orleans, which tried unsuccessfully to launch its Millennium Schools project, and to other possible participants as well.

Word out of Baton Rouge is that BESE's folks will start with just one or two schools and try to develop a model that works, then replicate it in other schools. If they bite off too many schools at once, the effort will be too easy to sabotage.

And rest assured, there are those who are only too willing to sabotage anything that changes the status quo.

So, while it may be tempting to look at the latest School Board changes as just another attempt to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, the truth is there's a lot going on behind the scenes. Stay tuned. Our city's future depends on it.

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