July 1, 2018 will have gone down in history as Independence Day for the New Orleans public school system. Long divided into two systems, one locally controlled and one state controlled, the city’s schools unify this month under the tutelage of the Orleans Parish School Board.

The state seized control of more than 100 “failing” public schools after Hurricane Katrina, leaving the OPSB a few high performing schools to run. The intervention enraged New Orleans leaders and a succession of school boards fought for the return of schools to local control for a decade before the state legislature adopted a law in 2016 setting a timeline for their return.  

“It’s a great day,” New Orleans school Superintendent Henderson Lewis said. “Once again, New Orleans will be treated like any other parish.”

The size of the OPSB’s system doubled on July 1, increasing from 41 to 80 schools with about 50,000 students enrolled. Lewis says the expansion requires double the work, but since the transfer has been two years in the making, “We are ready.”  

Much has changed since 2005, and the unification marks the beginning of a new era for New Orleans schools and the school board. The centralized, top-down management structure that is the norm for most systems in the nation is a thing of the past here.  

All but one New Orleans school now operate under multi-year charter contracts that allow school-based management. Each school has its own board and school leaders that make employee and budget decisions. The OPSB’s role is to hold the charter operators accountable through its ability to renew or suspend contracts.

The school board nowadays, Lewis said, is the “protector” of students, an “advocate” for schools and an “honest steward” of taxpayers’ money.   “This is not the old OPSB,” he said.

At the time of the state take-over, the school board supervised the operation of about 120 schools. The New Orleans school district was considered one of the worst in the country, known for dismal academic performance, financial mismanagement and corruption. It was $500 million in debt. At one point, a former school board president pleaded guilty to bribery.   

Those days are long gone, says Woody Koppel, who was elected to the board in 2008.  “The school board has worked very hard to earn the public’s trust,” he said.

With a smaller system to operate, subsequent school boards focused on paying down the debt and taking a firm hand to all spending decisions.  Koppel noted the debt has been halved in the past decade and is expected to be paid in full by 2021. As a result, he said, the board has earned a top bond rating.  

At the same time, the state Recovery School District created the first all-charter school district in the country. Failing schools were closed, new leaders acquired, cutting-edge facilities were built with $2 billion in FEMA funding, and overall student performance climbed from “failing” by state standards to average.      

“We have come a long way,” Koppel said. “Of course, post July, I think there will be some adjusting.”  

Even though the school board will no longer be involved in day-to-day operations of schools, there are problems to solve such as how to improve busing services and how to fund early childhood programs. Because schools statewide are not adequately funded, he said, the greatest challenge is learning how “to do more with less.”