The Politics of Education

How the election shook up the school board
“The people of New Orleans have lost an important|!!| important person in Lourdes Moran. Her being off the school board is more impactful than me being off the school board. The lack of her presence is a big blow.” |!!!|Outgoing board Chairman |!!!|Thomas Robichaux

Lourdes Moran wore optimistic yellow from neck to knee at the Orleans Parish School Board’s November meeting, even though it was one of her last.

Her sunny attire stood out among the usual gray and black business suits, but when she spoke, she was all business – as usual.

As an accountant and chairwoman of the board’s budget and finance committee, she asked about dollars and cents, the extra money that Orleans Parish homeowners would pay if the board voted to accept the financial windfall created by higher than expected tax revenues. After a stream of school officials urged the board to take the money, she and the other six members voted unanimously to receive almost double the $5.1 million in extra revenue that had already been budgeted for next year.

Since the board’s task was similar to banking lottery winnings, the meeting produced none of the “hostile dysfunction” that one observer said marked previous meetings. In addition to the ease of the issue, this particular board had less reason to squabble for the moment. Three of the seven were defeated during the Nov. 6, 2012 election. Their power to shape school policy all but evaporated the moment the votes were tallied.

Of the three, Moran’s defeat, in a squeaker of a race that seemed hers until the final count, created the most buzz. As a key player in the board’s financial recovery from near bankruptcy, her surprise defeat is a reminder that the makeup and attitudes of an elected board are subject to change.

No matter how effective an elected official is, voters sometimes act according to a different set of measures. That fact is nothing new, but in the case of the OPSB, every alteration, no matter how nuanced, is subject to microscopic analysis because the future of the city’s public schools is at stake.

“The people of New Orleans have lost an important, important person in Lourdes Moran,” says outgoing board Chairman Thomas Robichaux. “Her being off the school board is more impactful than me being off the school board. The lack of her presence is a big blow.”

When Moran was first elected eight years ago, the OPSB’s financial picture was so bleak, the state forced the board to hire a New York turnaround firm to get it out of financial crisis. Federal officials wanted to know what happened to $70 million in federal grants, and an audit discovered that some employees were still getting paychecks even though they hadn’t worked for the school system in years. The state put the board in a “high-risk” status that wasn’t lifted until last summer.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded schools in 2005, and the state took over most of them because they were “failing,” the Orleans Parish school system shrank to a handful of successful schools. Along the way, its chairwoman was convicted of taking $140,000 in bribes. Since that low point, the OPSB has worked to remove the albatross it carried by refinancing debt. Over time, the board secured one of the strongest bond ratings.

“In one day we saved $25 million dollars,” Robichaux says. “Lourdes, of all the board members, deserves the most credit for the fiscal reforms.”

Nonetheless, the majority of voters in District 4 favored her opponent. The boundaries of Moran’s district changed because of population shifts, but she doesn’t think the redistricting played much of a role in her defeat.

“I think there was an effort to change that board to a majority African American board,” she says.

Moran, who is Hispanic, said her view of the election is “speculative,” but the outcome did tilt the racial makeup of the seven-member board to four black members and three white members.

“It’s swung back,” Caroline Roemer Shirley, Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, says of the new racial makeup of the board. “I think that it’s important because the majority of students are African American.”
Robichaux’s defeat wasn’t surprising. He was a white man running in a majority black district. His opponent also won the endorsement of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and financial backing from Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and key player in education reforms.
Robichaux worries that the board will return to its former politics as usual character. “I am so very proud of all the progress we have made,” he says. “I just hope and pray the new board will keep these reforms in place.”

Moran and Robichaux are to be replaced by Leslie Ellison, a former charter school board member with a reputation for religious conservatism, and Nolan Marshall, a photographer and business owner, respectively. Their views on reform issues and charter schools are unknown for the most part, but Marshall said in a WWNO interview conducted by The Lens that he believes that two seats or more should be mayoral appointees.

Marshall’s openness to structural changes may have brought him some supporters because many charter operators blame elected school boards nationwide for the poor performance of urban schools. As a consequence, several proposals for changing the structure of the OPSB are floating around.

Most of them consist of diluting the elected board’s power, especially over operations of schools.

“It’s not personal,” says Jay Altman, CEO of FirstLine Schools, a charter management operator known for school turnarounds. “It’s just bad structure, and New Orleans has the opportunity to set a model for the rest of the country.”

How such a structure could be accomplished is unclear. Any legislative proposal altering school board structure is bound to get push back from school board members in other districts. They would view it as a threat to their influence.

Board member Brett Bonin was defeated by Sarah Usdin, founder of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that has raised money for charter schools. She was backed by reform groups pushing a reform agenda nationwide.

In fact, behind the scenes, there are two opposing mindsets about how New Orleans’ schools should look in the 21st century. One is the charter model run by educators with proven track records in raising student achievement. The other is any school that’s locally controlled and considers community needs.

The new board took office Jan. 1. One of the first decisions that it’s likely to take up is the hiring of a permanent superintendent. The board’s choice will send a message about its future direction, many observers say.

“What scares the heck out of me,” Moran says, “is that someone internally will make the decision. Our staff is very traditionally minded.”

The central OPSB staff of around 50 is about all that’s left of the former OPSB school system of over 100 schools, and its members are still rooted in the old ineffective ways, Moran says. Even though new state laws strip tenure from teachers who are deemed ineffective by a tough evaluation system, Moran says OPSB staff members are still tenured, and their job security is rock solid.

“To get rid of someone is a nightmare,” she says. “A hearing process can last six months. Who has that kind of time to donate to get rid of an individual?”

Another problem is the staff’s guaranteed time off. “They take all the holidays the schools take, plus some,” Moran says, “plus five weeks vacation. It’s the craziest thing I have ever seen.”

This new board takes charge at a time that 13 successful charters are eligible to return to the board’s control if they choose to do so. Others are likely to become eligible next year. Any perceived cracks in the previous board’s pro-reform leanings could seal the fate of the city’s schools for years to come.

“I don’t think I would personally be ready to return,” says Mickey Landry, head of Lafayette Academy, one of the schools that could return this year. “It took a long time for the [board’s] corruption and dysfunction and ineffectiveness to develop. It will take a longer period for a culture of honesty and fairness and efficiency to settle in.”