Those who moved to New Orleans in recent years might be forgiven for not knowing the history of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), historically the most dysfunctional agency in a famously dysfunctional city. The board has gone through several superintendents and board presidents, perhaps the most notorious of whom was Ellenese Brooks-Simms, who was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for accepting bribes from convicted felon Mose Jefferson, who was peddling a math software program he wanted the OPSB to buy.
Then there was the curious case of a 70-year-old OPSB janitor named Alphonse Davis Sr., who racked up $156,823 in salary and overtime between July 1999 and December 2001 — more than $70,000 in one year alone, which also was more than OPSB principals earned. The fact that Davis' son Alphonse Davis Jr. became Orleans Parish public schools superintendent in July 1999 was just a coincidence and had nothing to do with his father's handsome compensation — or so the younger Davis told investigators.
After Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, the new Recovery School District (RSD) took over operations of most public schools in New Orleans, and for good reason. They were academically abysmal as well as terribly run. A reform-touting faction came into office on the OPSB shortly thereafter and attempted to get the now-state-run public schools back under local control. That group saw some successes. They improved the board's finances and bond rating, showed academic improvement in many quarters and instituted a much-needed anti-bullying policy. Members of that board hoped to see RSD schools returning to OPSB control this year, but several of them lost their bids for re-election last year.
Based on the quarrelsome antics at last week's OPSB meeting, the prospects for returning state-run public schools to local control appear dimmer than ever. The new board, though in office less than a year, already has a lot of housecleaning to do. As previous boards did before the post-Katrina reform years, the present school board has split into factions defined largely by race, filtered through the lens of the board's support (or lack thereof) of interim Superintendent Stan Smith.
Smith, who is white, has held the position for more than a year. He earned the job by shepherding the previous board to fiscal stability, a feat apparently not appreciated by the new board. At last week's meeting, some current board members wanted Smith fired outright, while others wanted an up-or-down vote on his contract. Neither happened. Three of the African-American members of the board — Ira Thomas, Leslie Ellison and Cynthia Cade — clearly want Smith gone. The three white board members — Sarah Usdin, Seth Bloom and Woody Koppel — want to keep Smith until a national search produces his permanent replacement. The seventh member of the board, Nolan Marshall Jr. (who is African-American), has taken on the role of mediator.
Much of last week's contretemps stemmed from perceived unfairness in the board's award of contracts to minority-owned companies. That's a laudable goal, but fighting over contracts, rather than education, is why the OPSB has been a sinkhole of dysfunction.
More distraction occurred over an anti-bullying policy adopted by the previous board. The policy applies to the five OPSB "direct-run" schools, not local charter schools. Ellison, who opposed a legislative proposal to add sexual-orientation protections to existing state non-discrimination policies while she served on a charter school board, led a charge to eliminate similar language in the OPSB anti-bullying policy. When asked about the separation of church and state, Ellison — who has made it clear her views stem from her faith — said bluntly, "There is no such thing." (Though not expressly part of the U.S. Constitution, the concept dates to the Founding Fathers and is a foundation stone of constitutional law.)
Last week's meeting lasted five hours. Little if anything was accomplished. This is nothing new. In the nearly seven months the present board has held office, it has yet to select a company to lead the search to replace Smith. You'd never know this from the OPSB website, however; the board's online minutes haven't been updated at all in 2013.
If that's not enough to make parents and taxpayers lose all faith in this board, we suggest they check out the board's website, which states: "The Orleans Parish School Board sets Policy for the the education if the children entrusted to us for their education as well as Board and District Operations."
That's not a series of typos. That's the board's policy statement, verbatim. We rest our case.