Two months ago, Michelle Blouin-Williams seemed to be on an easy path to becoming the next superintendent of the Jefferson Parish school system.
Now the system’s chief academic officer, she had the support of School Board members. She had the blessing of outgoing Superintendent James Meza, who promoted her to the district’s second-highest position and started bringing her up to speed on nonacademic issues to ease the transition.
However, the fall elections tipped the balance of power on the School Board, relegating members backed by the parish’s business interests to a minority for the first time in four years. Now, the selection of a new superintendent is set to be the first major issue facing the new board.
With power shifting to five union-backed members who are set to be led by one of the board’s most fiery members, how the search for a new school chief plays out could set the tone for the coming term.
While members of that new majority say they’re still formulating their plans for the next four years, proposals near the top of their priorities list appear to include reviving the former collective bargaining contract between the school system and the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and reopening West Bank schools closed for poor performance.
Members of both board factions are preparing for significant changes in the system that could roll back many of the policies of the last four years — policies that supporters argue were responsible for creating a better school system but that opponents say did little but make life difficult for teachers.
Before any of those issues arise, the board must select a president and vice president for the next year. Cedric Floyd, unquestionably the fiercest opponent of the former majority, said he has the support of four others on the nine-member board to take over as president, while board member Ray St. Pierre would get the same votes for vice president. The two men are the longest-serving members of the board, and both have opposed many of the policies put in place after the business-backed majority took office in 2010.
The business-backed members have held the leadership positions since they took office with the exception of this year, when Mark Morgan was elected president. Morgan was something of a swing vote on the board, though he voted with the business majority on many key issues.
Floyd downplays divisions among the board members, arguing that on the vast majority of issues, they are of one mind. At the same time, he promises that those controversial issues that saw him in the minority — and occasionally the lone voice of dissent — will re-emerge.
“Most of the things I’ve lost on over the last four years, you’re going to see the flowers bloom now,” said Floyd, who has criticized the district in a variety of areas and argued it is not providing enough resources to schools with largely minority populations and for issues related to teachers’ employment.
Seeking other candidates
Floyd also pushed for the board to advertise that the superintendent position will be vacant after Meza retires on Jan. 31. While that measure saw no opposition, and in fact is required by state law, Floyd has been more outspoken than other members of the board about seeking other candidates.
Though Blouin-Williams was hand-picked by Meza, who has been closely aligned with the business-backed board members and pushed policies opposed by the new majority, Floyd said he did not see that fact as barring her from getting his vote. He said that in following Meza’s lead, she had been doing her job.
“She’s a viable candidate. We have to see who else applies, but she is a viable candidate,” he said.
Still, her candidacy is more tenuous now than it had been, members of both board factions agree.
“It is in question at this particular point,” St. Pierre said. “I don’t have much to say about that. I think the new members coming on have to try to evaluate what they think and then see what can occur.”
Board member Larry Dale, who won re-election this year with the backing of business groups, said he also saw a shift in tone from a board that strongly backed Blouin-Williams to one that is less solidly supportive of her. But he said she still seemed the obvious choice to him.
Incoming union-backed board member Ricky Johnson said that while he favors a national search for a new superintendent, he also does not want the process to drag on too long. The earliest the board could consider candidates will be Jan. 29, two days before Meza’s departure, but Johnson and others said a decision could be made soon after that.
“I’m not sold on any one person just yet but have my eyes open to see what they want to do and what they’re willing to do,” Johnson said.
Meladie Munch, the president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers who made an unsuccessful bid to win a seat on the School Board herself this year, said the selection of the next superintendent is the most important issue facing the board. While declining to endorse or reject any potential candidate for the job, Munch said it is important that the board select “an individual that’s willing to sit down and talk with us.”
No timetable for contract
Relations between the administration and the teachers are set to be the focus of another key issue before the board: what to do about the system’s now-expired collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.
That contract, which laid out policies related to teachers’ employment, had been rejected by the business-backed members of the board; members of the incoming majority have pledged to reinstate it. Getting to an agreement will not be a quick process, Munch said, noting that sometimes such contracts take years to negotiate.
“I think the teachers would love to see a collective bargaining agreement,” she said. “That takes time. That’s not something that is thrown together without a lot of time and a lot of hard work.”
While there is no timetable for taking up that issue, Floyd said something needs to be done to improve teacher morale.
“It’s clear to me that many employees feel like they’re not respected and that we need to bring some dignity and respect to all employees and a sense that the school system is for the community,” he said.
Munch also said teachers are pushing for changes to the goals set by the administration for evaluating teachers. She said such targets have been problematic because they take a one-size-fits-all approach, requiring the same amount of improvement for all students regardless of where they start.
While typically such criticisms are framed in terms of problems in bringing low-performing students up to speed, the system in Jefferson also has created issues for teachers with high-performing students who are required to show the same rate of improvement even when they have no significant room for growth, Munch said.
A negative message?
The new board also could revisit another controversial policy put in place in recent years: the closing of underperforming West Bank schools in areas with large minority populations. Those students were shifted to other schools farther from their neighborhoods. Johnson made reopening those schools a key plank in his campaign platform, and he said he intends to call for a study of the issue in hopes of having the schools reopened within two years.
The closure of the schools, he said, sends a negative message to the community.
“It’s telling the neighbors that you’re not worthy of having a school in your neighborhood, you’re not worthy of having your kids walk to school and you’re not worthy of having teachers in your neighborhood. I think every neighborhood should be worthy of that,” he said.
The growth in the school-aged population in Jefferson Parish could ease the way for such a proposal to gain approval across the divided board.
“It wasn’t really closing schools as much it was consolidating,” Dale said. “We may need to open more schools again, I don’t know, because the school system’s growing. We’re going to have to look at what to do.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.