Standing in a meeting room buzzing with teachers, administrators and School Board members, outgoing Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent James Meza said his impending departure is feeling more real by the moment.
“It feels great, though,” he said at the farewell event, held just two days before a retirement he announced more than a year ago becomes official.
Meza was brought in as interim superintendent in 2011, and the board voted to drop the “interim” title six months later, fully handing him the reins of the state’s largest school system and one of its most diverse.
During that time, the system’s state rating went from a D to a B, though that improvement was helped by a statewide overhaul of the grading system.
When he arrived, it was running a double-digit deficit and had 26 schools in danger of being taken over by the state’s Recovery School District. Meza’s leadership was critical in putting the system’s budget back in the black and preventing any takeovers, School Board member Larry Dale said.
Dale said that while Meza always stressed that success comes from everyone pulling together, “these accomplishments could not have happened without your strong leadership.”
In between the handshakes and hugs from well-wishers, Meza said the job has been a difficult one. He said he always has loved the educational elements of the job, but he called the politics involved in it draining.
Meza, who has said he expects to continue to work in education through consulting, said he is looking forward to being able to spend more time with his family, which he said has had to adjust to seeing much less of him since he took the job just months after retiring as the University of New Orleans’ dean of education in 2010.
Meza’s tenure has seen plenty of controversy. His agenda had the support of the business community, and business-backed members made up a bare majority of the board.
Meza’s and the board’s decisions to close underperforming schools and not renew a contract with the parish teachers union drew fire from critics, who said his methods and prescriptions for change were driving away talented teachers and administrators.
But Meza continues to see the changes as necessary ones, and he didn’t shy away from noting that only about a third of the principals he addressed behind closed doors before the event were there when he started.
He said he feels confident he is leaving behind “good, talented people.”
“Every expectation we’ve had of them, they’ve been able to meet,” he said.
Dawn Kalb, who has been principal at Bonnabel Magnet Academy for four years, said the system still has further to go but that Meza’s tenure overall has been a positive one.
“The focus has become purely on the student,” she said. “I tell my students, ‘I work for you.’ ”
Kalb said the accountability put on principals to turn their schools around has been a challenge but one she has, for the most part, been empowered to meet.
Her school, which has 1,550 students, went from an F school to a C.
Meza said he is sure the new board, which now has a majority backed by the teachers union, will reconsider the issue of the union contract. But he said he’s confident that much of the work his administration and the old board did will continue because it has led to better outcomes.
“Every major decision that we’ve made is showing positive results,” he said.
At a special meeting Thursday night, the board unanimously appointed Michelle Blouin-Williams, who has been Meza’s deputy superintendent, as the system’s acting superintendent.
Next month, it will choose a permanent superintendent from among six candidates who have applied, including Blouin-Williams.
Meza said he thinks most of the candidates not only can hit the ground running but “know which direction to run in.”
The goal of everyone in the system, he said, is to work every day with the idea that “no child should go to any school that you wouldn’t send your own child to.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Jan. 30, 2015, to correct the name of Bonnabel Magnet Academy Principal Dawn Kalb.