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Slippery Slopes 

Critics of the new law that transfers vast powers from the Orleans Parish School Board to School Superintendent Tony Amato say the measure is a slippery slope. They say it undermines (in Orleans Parish only, so far) much of the traditional authority vested in school boards, particularly the right to set policy.

The critics are absolutely correct, but they miss the point of the new law.

The board, or rather a majority of the board's members, put themselves on that slope by acting in grossly bad faith over a period of years. Educational policy often appeared to be the least of their concerns -- far behind awarding contracts and keeping favored employees and vendors in place. Their recent move to fire Amato at a hastily called meeting was simply the last little nudge that sent their political fortunes over the edge.

Bear in mind that state Rep. Karen Carter's bill was filed several months ago, not in response to the board's latest missteps but rather to correct years of mismanagement and corruption. The board's recent gaffes -- particularly some members' failed attempt to fire Amato -- gave Carter's measure added momentum and assured its prompt passage. For that, the now-chagrined board members have no one but themselves to blame.

The new law gives Amato virtually unfettered authority to run the school system, which is what he should have had in the first place. Unfortunately, too many school board members believe they were elected to "run things" -- that is, to meddle in day-to-day affairs of the system, which is the worst form of institutional oversight by a board. Whether you're talking about a school board or the board of a Fortune 500 company, a board's focus should be on long-range policymaking and sound financial management practices, not day-to-day operations. Ongoing operations should be the exclusive bailiwick of the CEO.

To anyone's recent memory, that model has never been used by the Orleans Parish School Board. School superintendents historically have had to fight off meddlesome board members (which put their jobs at risk) or kowtow to members' whims in order to keep their jobs.

Meanwhile, long-range policymaking and sound financial management practices are foreign concepts to most members of the Orleans Parish School Board. That's why Carter's bill passed so overwhelmingly. The new law not only makes sure that Amato can operate the school system, but it also allows him to make policy. In addition, the law directs him to initiate an independent audit of the school's finances -- another role traditionally reserved for the board, but one this board would not likely undertake voluntarily.

Which brings us back to that slippery slope. The question that should be asked now is not whether it was wise to get on the slope in the first place -- it's too late for that -- but rather what lies at the bottom?

The events set in motion by the new law focus on the board, but they represent just a first step. If board members continue to meddle or attempt again to fire Amato, the next step will be a takeover by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which voters authorized in a constitutional amendment, adopted last autumn. Even if board members leave Amato alone and he fails to improve things, a BESE takeover would surely follow.

And if BESE cannot make the system work, the next step will be either replacing the system entirely with a set of smaller school districts, transforming many or most schools into charter schools, or adoption of a district-wide voucher system -- or some combination of those. Each option spells the same thing for the current board: oblivion.

Lest we forget, all seven school board members are up for re-election this fall. It will be interesting to see how many of them even seek re-election.

Ironically, the board's best hope for survival is the chance that Amato will succeed, which is by no means assured. Is the current crop of board members wise enough -- and disciplined enough -- to let that happen, or even to help make it happen? That may be the slipperiest slope of all.

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