Chartering the Course
A new school board; a new direction
Brian Hubble illustration
The swearing-in of the new school board in January marked the beginning of a promising second chance for New Orleans public schools.
This Orleans Parish School Board, elected to serve until 2020, will usher in plans to unify the city’s public schools after more than a decade of state intervention.
Also much, if not all, of the hostility, dysfunction and power-grabbing that has roiled school boards for decades receded with the election of some additional pro-charter school supporters. Resistance to the charter model embraced by the state after its 2005 takeover of the majority of the city’s failing schools has ebbed over time. Community support for charter schools increased as a result of improved academic performance.
“I’m expecting this to be a pretty respectful board,” says Leslie Jacobs, a former Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member who was instrumental in promoting the charter model.
“Unlike the previous board, they walked in with a larger shared vision of the key principles and tenets,” Jacobs says.
The new board supports charters and parental choice, she says, which will provide common ground for debating other policies, such as how to reestablish the neighborhood school concept within the charter framework.
Ken Ducote, who monitors board action as director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, is also optimistic about the new board’s ability to cooperate and to project an image of integrity. As the school system’s former director of facilities, Ducote has had a first-row seat to many years of hostile board relations and some former members’ attempts to bully others into carrying out personal agendas.
“Everybody was intimated. Actions were taken against them for protecting the public interest,” he says. “In at least the last year that has not been the case, and that is certainly the proper ethic.”
These board members bring an array of relevant skills to their role of providing umbrella leadership for more than 80 schools. Charter schools control their own budgets, hiring and curriculum, but the board and its staff oversee the enrollment process and chartering decisions.
Here is a summary of members’ backgrounds gleaned from OPSB’s website, their own websites, news reports and interviews.
Ethan Ashley, a youth mentor and juvenile justice reform advocate, represents Gentilly and a portion of eastern New Orleans. Ashley replaced a member who often resisted reform. He co-authored a letter to the editor of The Times-Picayune in 2014 praising charters for understanding that “children deserve a world-class education.” A native of California, he graduated from Howard University’s law school, and then moved to New Orleans to help rebuilding efforts. Presently Director of Community Engagement at the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, his website says “his passion” for juvenile justice led to a career change.
John Brown Sr. – initially appointed to replace former member Ira Thomas, who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge – represents the 9th Ward and most of eastern New Orleans. He was elected board president in January. Rooted in New Orleans public schools from student to retired principal, Brown followed up a 30-year education career with a stint as Fellows Director at the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that develops leadership skills in school managers. He has the strongest ties to the traditional neighborhood school model that some residents wish to revive in some form.
Leslie Ellison returns for a second term representing Algiers, Marigny, Bywater and part of the French Quarter. A Southern University at New Orleans graduate and former City Hall administrator, her website says she was recently elected to the Democratic State Central Committee. A native of Algiers and active in civic organizations, she easily defeated two opponents to be re-elected. A run for a state senate seat failed in 2015. She is the vice president.
Woody Koppel, now in his third term, represents Uptown. He is a graduate of University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. His late father, also Woody Koppel, served on the board during some of its rockiest years. After Katrina, the younger Koppel help reduce the staggering debt accumulated by former school boards. That board focused on stabilizing its finances and improving its bond rating. Teacher turned real estate developer, Koppel’s real estate experience could help guide liquidation of blighted school buildings.
Ben Kleban, a newcomer, represents areas around the Irish Channel and Garden District. He founded New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools, a network of three charters. A former math teacher with a MBA from Harvard University and a background in corporate finance, he brings dual strengths to the board – charter school administration and business expertise.
Nolan Marshall, a photographer and former owner of Marshall Studios, returns for a second term. He represents most of the CBD and French Quarter. A New Orleans native, he attended Loyola University and University of New Orleans. Marshall replaced contentious Ira Thomas as president of the board in 2014 amid desires to heal wounds and move forward. A Lens report said he’s considered a “calm voice.” Marshall often provided the swing vote during the prior board’s frequent disputes.
Sarah Usdin, founder of New Schools for New Orleans, represents parts of Mid-City stretching to Lakeview. With strong ties to charters, she was supported by national reformers during the 2012 elections. A former Teach For America fifth grade teacher and state TFA director, she’s been instrumental in expanding charters and training teachers to staff them. A former Fulbright scholar, she obtained a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Louisiana State University. She received The Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership.