A deficit in excess of $10 million. Indictments of employees who allegedly embezzled from the system by inflating work hours and participating in kickback schemes with vendors. A report that a long-awaited audit will not meet its year-end deadline. Turnover in top administration officials that could best be described as "churn." In most situations, reports like this would signal the failure of a public school system. In Orleans Parish, though, these dismal-sounding reports actually ring a different note: that of long-standing problems finally being rooted out and addressed.
"We know these challenges have taken years to develop, but we are looking at doing whatever it takes to restore the system's accountability," says Torin Sanders, who defeated incumbent Elliot Willard in the November runoff to take the District 7 School Board seat. "It's better to know than not to know."
Sanders is right: The only way to solve problems is to face them. The new school board can't be expected to work miracles. What they can do, though, is continue to support the administration and the agencies sorting through the system's problems. They can also urge the administration to adopt internal controls that will assure that the same problems never occur again. Accountability is essential in regaining public trust, and public trust is the first step in reclaiming pride in our public education.
Sanders' attitude reflects the can-do determination and desire for reform that swept a new slate of candidates onto the Orleans Parish School Board this fall. Every incumbent who ran -- with the exception of Jimmy Farenholtz and Una Anderson, two staunch defenders of Supt. Anthony Amato -- was voted out of office during the fall election cycle. By statute, the new board will assume power Jan. 1, though its members won't formally be installed until Jan. 10. However, the board won't start with a clean slate -- far from it. FBI Special Agent in Charge Louis Reigel says the end of his investigations into corruption and theft inside the system is nowhere in sight. Amato himself has pointed to a "culture of greed" that has continued across a number of administrations.
That kind of corruption has been abetted by the constant turnover in superintendents. Imagine: New Orleans Public School students now entering 10th grade have seen eight superintendents and interim superintendents since they left kindergarten. In that context, it's no news that parents and teachers feel apprehensive about systemic changes and reform. But they're even more apprehensive about instability -- as they showed when parents, teachers and even childless professionals picketed outside the school district's offices that June day that some board members abruptly convened to dismiss Amato.
The public outcry then -- and the board purge by voters a few months later -- was not about Amato, according to School District spokeswoman Pat Bowers. "The public recognizes that the school system is at a critical juncture, and that it has to be turned around," she says. "It's not about one person."
The announcement by Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti earlier this month that no conflict exists between the Louisiana Constitution and Act 193, which shifts significant amounts of power from the board to the superintendent, underscores the public desire for real improvement in the school system, Bowers says. While incoming board members may still have to work out the logistics of how to work with the law, it clears the way for the current superintendent to implement major changes without getting a nod of approval from the board every time he makes a decision.
The ability to hire skilled technical staff and to dismiss those who aren't trained in technical areas is essential if the district is to move forward, says legislative auditor Steve Theriot. At Amato's invitation, the auditor's office began working with the school district almost a year ago, a job Theriot continued when he took over as legislative auditor in May.
To Amato and the new board's agenda, we'd like to add a few items. It's important to continue to support standardized testing and to scrutinize the results for improvement on a school-by-school basis. We'd also like to see a real commitment to enriched, engaging education in the earliest grades, when students either master the basics or fall behind forever. Finally, we endorse the commitment made by several incoming board members to increase social services and conflict-resolution training inside the schools. No child or teenager can learn if they're hungry at home or fighting at school. We encourage the new board to keep these among their highest priorities.
Already there's reason for optimism. This was the year when New Orleans showed that it cared about education. As returning board member Una Anderson ironically put it during the school board crisis in June, "If the board has accomplished one thing, it has been to pull all of the community together." Let's remain together as the new board takes up these issues.