Public education," Orleans Parish School Superintendent William O. Rogers said in 1884, "is an anvil on which a good many hammers have been worn out."
With just three weeks left before qualifying (Aug. 4-6), candidates for the Orleans Parish School Board are readying their hammers for the Sept. 18 primary election. All seven district seats on the board are up for grabs. Runoffs, where needed, will be held on the presidential election ballot Nov. 2.
Politicos are predicting a rush of last-minute entries because of the short campaign season between the traditional Labor Day kick-off and the Sept. 18 primary election ("The Twelve Day Campaign," July 6). As candidates and potential candidates try to nail down political and financial support, veteran school board insiders, critics and campaign consultants have some advice for anyone who is still pondering a race for the board.
"Ask yourself, Why do you want to do it?' Do you really want this thankless job?" says Sidney Arroyo, a veteran political strategist and campaign manager for School Board incumbents Jimmy Fahrenholtz (District 3) and Una Anderson (District 6).
Local public schools face a number of well-publicized issues: Superintendent Anthony Amato recently survived an alleged coup attempt. The schools chief gained sweeping powers, thanks to new state legislation championed by the governor and the Legislature. School Board critics have filed suit in federal court alleging the new law diminishes the power of board members and violates the civil rights of black voters. The FBI is leading a multi-agency corruption probe of the system from inside school district headquarters -- an unprecedented move for the bureau.
Meanwhile, schools are chronically under-performing and plagued by a crumbling infrastructure. Students throughout the system live in poverty and endure other social ills.
"I think one should accept that it is a thankless job," says District 2 incumbent Gail Glapion, who says she is retiring and will not seek re-election. "Once you accept that, you do the best you can. Try and get a clear picture of what really is the role of a School Board member. Try to frame your vision in the context of what being a School Board member really is all about. Be open to change and be focused. It's all about children and it's about the future of our community."
Scott Shea, a lawyer who represented District 3 from 1997 to 2000, says candidates should be prepared to make sacrifices. "It killed my law practice," Shea says of his board years.
C.C. Campbell-Rock, a parent-activist and public relations consultant who made an unsuccessful bid for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) last year, says the district races for the School Board are more conducive to grass-roots campaigns, but raising money can still be a problem.
"The only thing I can tell activists is that if you don't have $40,000, you really have to pound the payment day in and day out," Campbell-Rock says. She warns that few political action committees (PACs) will endorse a candidate without requiring you to put up money for a pro rata share of printing costs for advertising the PAC's endorsement. The candidate's costs start at $1,000 and up. Overall, raising money can be dicey for independent-minded candidates. "There is money to be had, but you really don't want money from certain people and I didn't want to be controlled by anybody," Campbell-Rock says.
Al Kennedy, a retired spokesman for the school district, warns of the shortcomings of local media coverage of public education. "Do some homework on the history of the school system," he says. "If you make your decision to run based on what you read in the newspapers and what you see on TV, you are in for quite a rude awakening. It is a very complex organization to oversee and guide."
Listed as a part-time job, with a ceiling of less than $10,000 fixed by state law, board members face a steady stream of requests from constituents alone. That's why political consultant Cheron Brylski, who worked as a part-time public relations consultant for the School Board from 1994 to 1998, says that time is a key resource for any potential School Board member. "The main question you need to ask yourself is, Am I willing to give up this time, because it is a full-time job,'" Brylski says.
If you have the time, you next need to consider if you can raise the money. A School Board campaign can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000, consultants say, depending on your organization and your opposition. Unless you are running for the District 2 seat being vacated by the retiring Glapion, you will be campaigning against one of six incumbents.
"No matter how unpopular an incumbent, he or she has more name recognition than you do," Brylski says. "Are you willing to raise or put up $45,000 to do a well-financed but frugal campaign that reaches chronic voters in your district?"
A candidate needs at least two to three direct-mail pieces, Brylski says. And you can expect to pay for the publication of a ballot, even if you get the endorsement of a "good government" group.
Candidates should also prepare themselves for endorsement interviews with political organizations and media. "You need to think about how to get The Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly endorsements, as well as the Alliance for Good Government and the teachers' union (United Teachers of New Orleans)," Brylski says. "If you get those four endorsements and a decent budget, you have a shot at unseating an incumbent."
In addition, a candidate should be able to walk a majority of his or her district, visit schools, and talk with parents, teachers and principals. And, of course, go to School Board meetings.
Political consultant Allan Katz, who along with Danae Columbus is working for District 5 candidate Phyllis Landrieu, says once you decide to run, you need to make sure you live in the district. Katz remembers an interim board appointee who liked the job so much he decided to run for it -- and was disqualified because he lived outside the district. "Get a map of your district," Katz says. "Once you do that, it is fairly easy to determine if you live in it." (Maps are available online at www.nops.k12.la.us.)
School Board runs are really door-to-door campaigns, which require fliers, yard signs and bumper stickers, Katz says. Television and radio are often prohibitive expenses, he says. Try to attract support from political organizations and neighborhood improvement groups or their members. "If you don't have a lot of money, you need a lot of friends who believe in you and the positions that you take," Katz says. With three weeks left until qualifying, a candidate should be ready to announce his or her candidacy and have "foot soldiers in place and a strategic campaign plan."
"A good plan goes from election day backwards," Katz says. "Know what you and your organization will be doing on Election Day, then the day before the election and so forth."
With qualifying near, Arroyo says candidates should be meeting with friends and business associates to raise money and line up support. "And clear your schedule through Sept 18," he says.
Candidates should prepare to respond to a wide range of questions about education and School Board issues at forums and endorsement interviews, politicos say. Most of all, be ready to discuss your opinion of the current superintendent. "The one over-riding issue is, Where do you stand on Amato?'" says Arroyo, referencing a state law that makes Amato one of the most powerful and autonomous school superintendents in the country. "That is the issue."
Glapion acknowledges that a candidate's support for or opposition to Amato is a key issue -- but stresses it is not the only issue. Board members must be able to "dance together as an entity" as well as with the superintendent and other public agencies and officials, she says. Relations with other board members are key to move the district forward.
"I am not sure we have gotten the dance steps together," she says. "We were close in 1992." That year, several "reform" candidates were elected to the board. (An Internet entrepreneur is currently marketing "Erase the Board" bumper stickers, caps and sun visors at www.erasetheboard.com, saying that a portion of all proceeds will go to the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts Student Scholarship Fund. The slogan appeared in the '92 campaigns.)
In 1992, education advocate Leslie Gerwin was senior vice president of the Metropolitan Area Committee (MAC) and executive director of Education Fund, a community outreach program that sought to define issues and qualifications for School Board members. She says candidates need to commit to a strategic plan, outlining how they will improve the system in conjunction with the superintendent.
"They must commit to a process for developing policy that is inclusive of all interests in community, and that is an incredible time-consuming and messy process," Gerwin says. "It cannot be directed by any single interest."
In addition, she says, "As a board member, you have got to respect the superintendent but you have also got to hold him accountable."
Gerwin also advises candidates not to promise what they cannot deliver. "I don't think you can promise to fix the system," she says. "You can promise to work together. You have to have an open mind and be willing to lose the next election. Because if you are just trying to build a political base, you are just becoming a political animal."
Unlike in 1992, reform-minded candidates can utilize the Internet to learn what programs are spurring academic achievement in other public school districts. "Look around and find new ideas -- what's working elsewhere?" Gerwin says. She recommends several nonprofit think tanks as resources: The Institute for Educational Leadership (www.iel.org), The Public Education Network (www.publiceducation.org) and Stanford University, which has done research on the role of school boards.
Candidates also should be prepared to answer questions asked of incumbents, politicos stress. For example, local activist and public education supporter Lance Hill says he wants to hear candidates answer a single question: What will it take to fix the school system and how much will it cost?
When Gambit Weekly put Hill's question to outgoing board member Glapion, who leaves in December after 20 years in office, she demurred. "The cost is far more than anything we can imagine given the unique situation," Glapion says. She noted the many social ills that beset many neighborhoods that produce public school students, including poverty, lack of adequate health care, high teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates, and illegal drug activity.
The district's operating budget is half a billion dollars -- but 76 percent of that figure goes to employee salaries and benefits. Physical plant needs currently exceed $1 billion dollars. The system could easily use $2 billion to address capital improvements and operating needs, she says. But Glapion quickly adds she does not want to understate the district's needs.
Hill says he does not expect anyone to answer his question, because community dialogue traditionally has focused on a "piece-meal approach" to funding education. Everyone knows local public school children require special services, Hill says, but there are educational models to help those kids achieve academic success. "It's a simple question: What do we need to do to achieve the academic outcomes that we want and what is that going to cost?'" Hill says. "If we as a community don't agree on the outcomes that have to be addressed, then we are pulling in opposite directions. What kind of resources are necessary to achieve the outcomes -- including teacher-class ratio and classroom technology. How much will it all cost?"
It's a question that may come up again before Sept. 18.
As qualifying nears, the contests in some districts have started to heat up. In the latest developments:
• In District 2, Alden Reine, a science professor at Xavier University, is running for Glapion's seat.
• In District 3, Sandra Wheeler-Hester, an announced candidate and board critic, is criticizing incumbent "Jimmy" Fahrenholtz for alleged violations of campaign finance laws. Meanwhile, Fahrenholtz is demanding a public apology from Hester for racial slurs of his name on her cable access television program, The Hester Report.
Responding to a story first reported by Gambit Weekly, Fahrenholtz says he is exercising his appeal rights in a dispute with the Louisiana Ethics Commission over $4,000 in fines and penalties for allegedly failing to file two campaign finance reports from his 2000 election in a timely manner. Fahrenholtz was recently socked with a second $2,000 fine for failing to file a report while he was already contesting an earlier late fee ("Board Update," June 29, 2004).
"I think that anything that is an ethics violation is a big deal," Hester says. "You should always avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Then when you are fined and you don't pay it, that speaks to your character. First of all, he is an attorney so he should have known. Aside from that, once the board makes you aware (of a fine) and you thumb your nose to their ruling and not pay the fine, then I think that speaks to your character."
But Hester later refused comment when asked to respond to Fahrenholtz's complaint that she repeatedly referred to him as "Fahren-honkie" on a June 25 broadcast of The Hester Report. "I'm only going to talk about the issues," Hester told Gambit Weekly.
In the broadcast, Hester appears in front of a large mural of seven caricatured sets of buttocks, each one captioned with the surname of a School Board member. Hester also appears in front of a chalkboard that displays the message "Erase the Board" and the names of each incumbent. The surname of her announced opponent is spelled "Fahren-honkie."
• In District 5, incumbent Carolyn Green-Ford last week paid the Ethics Board $8,600 in penalties and late fees for the late filing of campaign finance reports. Ford has no remaining fees. Ford faces strong opposition from Phyllis Landrieu, of the Landrieu political family.
• In District 6, attorney Henry P. Julien reportedly is considering a run against incumbent Una Anderson.
• In District 7, incumbent Eliot "Doc" Willard may expect opposition from Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant who ran previous campaigns for School Board and the New Orleans City Council. Glenn Wilson, who has twice run for the BESE Board, has confirmed his candidacy for the District 7 seat. Wilson also last week unsuccessfully appealed to the state Ethics Board for a waiver of $3,600 in fines for late fees from his BESE campaigns. "I'll pay the fines," he says. State law requires former candidates to pay the Ethics Board any outstanding fines before spending campaign funds for a new race. Violators can be assessed up to 200 percent of the expenditure or a $1,000 fine -- whichever is greater.