Even if the political firestorm over the alleged coup against schools superintendent Anthony Amato lowers to a simmer, the public should be hearing a lot about the Orleans Parish School Board. After all, all seven board members are up for re-election this year. But with qualifying on Aug. 4-6 for the Sept. 17 primary -- and runoffs, where needed, on the Nov. 2 presidential election ballot -- several political analysts say it's way too soon to count out any board incumbent in the upcoming elections.
"The group that got all upset about Amato probably thought this was a good re-election move," says Loyola University pollster Ed Renwick. "Can you imagine that they thought this was horrendous for their re-election chances and went ahead and did this anyway?"
Numerous radio call-in shows and Internet surveys came down favorably on the side of Amato. But Renwick says he doesn't put much faith in such unscientific polls, which include suburban voters who cannot actually vote in Orleans Parish. Nevertheless, Renwick says, the Amato dispute clearly has a lot more people concerned about the school system. "It will probably be easier for non-incumbents to raise money for the school board elections than it would have been a month ago," he says.
The pollster notes that board member Elliot "Doc" Willard's public break with the anti-Amato faction -- board president Cheryl Mills and members Ellenese Brooks-Simms and Carolyn Green-Ford -- is the latest example of a shifting of board majorities in recent years. The remaining board members are Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson, who championed Amato while battling his opponents on the board, and Gail Glapion, who spoke favorably of the schools chief while remaining neutral in the fight over his fate.
All seven candidates may face less certain futures than they did four years ago. In 2000, Willard was re-elected without opposition. Anderson, Glapion, Fahrenholtz, Green-Ford and Mills all won their district elections handily. Brooks-Simms had the closest race and she won a 51-percent, first-primary victory.
"I don't think you will have a large field of candidates in many of the school districts, and many of these races will be decided in September," says political consultant Gregory Rigamer. But Xavier University pollster Silas Lee predicts all seven board members will have challengers in September. "The question is how many?" Lee asks. "Talking about running and getting people to challenge incumbents are two different things."
School board campaigns can easily run up to $50,000 or higher. The part-time job pays less than $10,000 a year.
"The pay sucks and the hours suck for basically a full-time job," says political consultant Cheron Brylski, who worked as a part-time public relations consultant for the school board from 1994 to 1998. "The frustration level is so high, even though everyone's intentions are well meaning; every effort seems to go for naught."
But University of New Orleans pollster Susan Howell notes that board members have control over millions of dollars in school district contracts and job patronage. "You have to ask what the motive is for running for the school board," Howell says. "It is a thankless job but it does have an economic angle to it."
Howell says it's too soon to tell whether the public uproar over the Amato controversy will translate into a shake-up of the board. "If the dispute continues to have this level of intensity there may be another Erase the Board' movement," Howell says, recalling the 1991 school board election that elected three reform candidates. But there's still time, Howell says. "Two months is plenty of time to repair the public relations damage that was done to these board members," she says.
Despite the uproar over Amato's fate, less than half of all registered voters in Orleans Parish will turn out for the School Board primary elections, analysts say. "I would think the maximum voter turnout would be a third or less," Renwick says. However, Renwick notes, any runoff elections on Nov. 2 will face a citywide voter turnout of 70 percent or higher because the presidential election is on the same ballot. Howell of UNO says turnout for this fall's school board elections will depend on whether there is a continuing controversy and an organized effort to unseat certain incumbents. "There is an old saying, 'You can't beat somebody with nobody,'" she says.