Woody Koppel, now in his third term as a New Orleans School Board member, started learning about the inner workings of school system management while still a teenager.
He remembers sitting in the back during school board meetings, while his father, the first Woody Koppel to be elected to the school board, fought for transparency and fiscal responsibility with a fiery passion that awed admirers and infuriated detractors.
And as often happens with larger-than-life personalities, Harwood “Woody” Koppel lives on in the memories of many people who talk about him as if he were still fighting the good fight. George Harwood “Woody” Koppel, who followed his dad to the board in 2008, favors his father so much he is often mistaken for him, even though the elder Koppel died two decades ago.
Koppel says people he does not know come up to him and start talking about the old days. “That’s my dad,” he tells them, once he is certain he has been mistaken for his father again. “It’s like he has been away at a spa in California and never aged,” he said.
He not only looks like his father, he also shares his father’s burning desire to makes things right, which is why he sought to follow his father to the school board.
“If there’s a job left unfinished,” he said, “and I see the opportunity where I can take a chance to make a difference, I am going to act on it.”
And act, he did. By the time Koppel was elected after Katrina, the school system had been divided into two districts. The state took over about a hundred “failing” schools and left the school board with a handful of successful schools and $500 million in debt incurred by former boards. The unsound decisions that his father railed about in the 1970s and 1980s continued in the years leading up to Katrina.
Faced with colossal debt and loss of public trust created by pre-Katrina scandals of corruption and malfeasance, board members elected at the same time as Koppel in 2008 tackled the debt problem head-on. Today, only 10 years later, that debt has been halved, and the system’s bond rating has climbed to the top level of credit worthiness, he says.
“We had to make choices,” he said, some harder than others. “If you are trying to choose between ROTC and English, come on.”
As a result of continuous budget scrubbing and $2 billion in FEMA construction funds, Koppel noted the board will be debt free by 2021, a rare feat in urban education. “Then we can start dreaming,” he said.
This financial turnaround was one reason the state Legislature decided to return all Orleans Parish schools to the local board by next summer.
As of 2018, the present school board will be gatekeeper for about 75 schools, most of which will be semi-autonomous charter schools. The board will monitor them, but charter operators will manage them and be accountable for academic performance.
Not only did Koppel follow his father to the board, he also followed him into the real estate business. Koppel real estate expertise has guided multiple boards in matters of buying and selling property, said Ken Ducote, a former school board facilities director, who worked with both Koppels in his 30-year career.
But that’s where similarities between father and son end, according to Ducote. The communication style of the Koppel of yesteryear was far different, he said. The father was aggressive while the son has a more tactful approach.
“He is adamant about stuff behind the scenes,” Ducote said, “very professional. I’d say he is an excellent school board member.”
The father, however, was a different story. “He always called himself the watchdog of the school board,but it was a combination. Sometimes watchdog, sometimes pit-bull,” Ducote said.
In any case, he always made himself known. The first time Ducote met the first Woody Koppel they were both standing in line at a K&B drugstore on Claiborne Avenue. Koppel was standing behind him and recognized him as a New Orleans school teacher. After tapping him on the shoulder, Koppel said he was running for an elected seat on the school board and asked: “In three words, what can we do to improve the school system?”
“Smaller middle schools,” Ducote answered.
Ducote, who became a board administrator a few years later, said he doesn’t remember Koppel doing anything to change the size of middle schools, which may have been too difficult to do anyway, but he does remember the drama Koppel brought to school board meetings. He didn’t mind making enemies, even among his fellow board members if he felt they weren’t playing by the rules.
Lyn Koppel, wife of the first Woody and mother of the second, remembers one occasion when her husband and an ally on the board became incensed that the board was hashing out business over lunch. Members were essentially holding meetings and trading votes in secrecy.
Determined to stop the practice, Koppel arranged for a TV news reporter to meet him at Commander’s Palace restaurant where the board was dining and deciding matters soon to come before them in public. The cameramen arrived, and Koppel escorted them to the board’s table to catch the cabal on film. “Everyone was very annoyed,” Lyn Koppel said. “It ruined everyone’s lovely lunch.”
Another time her husband’s anger reached a boiling point happened on a rainy, first day of school, she says. At 7 a.m., he started getting calls about students with disabilities, some in wheelchairs, getting drenched while waiting for school buses that never came.
A few phone calls later, he discovered buses dedicated to disabled students had broken down and had never been fixed. No one had been informed that the buses weren’t in service, she recalled. “Harwood was absolutely out of his mind.”
One of the decisions that the board took despite elder Koppel’s strident opposition was building an elementary school on top of a toxic waste dump. Today, his son noted, no one would even consider such an action, but in 1986 his father was accused of racial prejudice and vilified for his opposition.
That debacle wasted millions in construction and relocation costs and jeopardized the health of hundreds of children and school employees. The legal ramifications are ongoing. “Here it is 40 years later, and we are still dealing with this,” Koppel said.
His father’s critics accused of him being more divisive than helpful, a charge that he countered with a typically challenging comment. The obituary published in the Times-Picayune at the time of his 1997 death said he defended himself by saying, “I’m a team player, as long as the team is not trying to throw the game.”
Right or wrong, after 18 years of angry outbursts and lost causes he was defeated for office in 1992.
His son, blessed with a better situation in a different time, accepts the fact that his father “had his way, and I have mine.”
But the Woody Koppel of today really is an apple that fell close to the tree. When asked how long he plans to toil for New Orleans’ children, he said: “As long as they will have me.”