Three members of the Orleans Parish School Board blocked an attempt to select a new superintendent Tuesday, voting against both finalists in a process that has dragged on for two years.
The vote, which split on racial lines, apparently will force the School Board to go back to the drawing board once again to try to find the next leader for the school system.
The deadlock came despite pleas from parents and members of the advocacy organization Stand For Children to make a decision that they said would allow the school system to move forward.
But even before the votes, at least some board members seemed to anticipate that little agreement would be found.
“We are where we are because you have seven individuals who care very much,” board President Nolan Marshall said before the votes. “Because everyone is so passionate about what they’re doing, they want to make sure we get the right candidate.”
The board tried twice to settle on a candidate but was unable to muster the five-vote supermajority needed to make a selection. While race did not come up as an issue during the public discussion, the votes were split on racial lines.
On the first ballot, the four black board members first split evenly between the two candidates. Leslie Ellison and Cynthia Cade voted for former Bermuda Education Minister Edmond Heatley, while members Ira Thomas and Marshall put their support behind former Memphis School Superintendent Kriner Cash. The three white board members — Sarah Usdin, Woody Koppel and Seth Bloom — voted to select neither candidate.
After calling for a second round of voting, the four members who had split their votes coalesced behind Cash. But the other three members refused to agree to that choice.
An attempt to call a third vote failed to attract enough support from the board.
Usdin was the only board member to directly explain her vote, saying she thought neither candidate would be a good fit for the district.
“I don’t believe either of the candidates would provide the kind of leadership that would bring us together,” Usdin said.
“We need to have stellar leadership,” she said.
Nearly 20 audience members in blue Stand For Children shirts attended the meeting to urge the board to make a decision.
Steven Cole, a member of the group, criticized the lack of public participation in the selection process and suggested letting the organization conduct its own search and forward its recommendations to the board.
“The community has lost confidence in you,” Cole said.
Members of the group walked out when Marshall said a selection wouldn’t be made at the meeting. He later said he meant that even if the board settled on a candidate, it would still have to negotiate a contract and go through other procedures before the selection would be complete.
Consultants hired to aid in the superintendent search spoke with more than 100 candidates about the job and received formal applications from 63, said Bill Attea, one of the consultants. The search was hampered by the diversity of the community and its desires and by the competing — and sometimes nearly contradictory — criteria board members asked the candidates to meet.
It remains to be seen whether any other candidates will come forward. The inability of the board to select a candidate could scare away other qualified applicants, said parent Amanda Stenson, who was with Stand For Children.
“We have not lacked for candidates. What I think we’ve lacked is will on the part of this board to accomplish the task we elected them to do,” Stenson said. “How many years is it going to take for us to hire a superintendent?”
Stan Smith, formerly the district’s chief financial officer, has been serving as interim superintendent for two years, stepping in after Darryl Kilbert resigned in 2012.
The extended search for a new leader has left the district in limbo, stuck with an uneasy status quo in which most New Orleans public schools are still governed by the state agency that took them over after Hurricane Katrina.
The School Board oversees a handful of traditional schools and more than a dozen independent charter schools. The state-run Recovery School District has more than 60 schools, all of which will be charters by the fall, and all of which could voluntarily switch to OPSB oversight once they start performing well enough academically.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on Aug. 20, 2014 to correct the name of the organization Stand For Children.