Three and a half decades ago, a former English teacher and area school superintendent’s aide landed a job at an Uptown school then unknown on the other side of town.

In the days when all New Orleans neighborhoods had their own public schools, parents in Gentilly didn’t often cross paths with those from Uptown. So when the principal of the now-shuttered Jean Gordon Elementary School introduced his then-wife — the ex-reading teacher turned Robert M. Lusher Elementary School leader — to Gordon families, many of them smiled politely and asked, “Where’s Lusher?”

Such a question would be inconceivable today, in a city where hundreds of parents have since slept on sidewalks, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy nearby homes and begged off work to hand-deliver applications, all for a mere shot at a seat for their child at Lusher Charter School.

The Lusher of 1982, Kathy Riedlinger’s first year as principal, was unassuming, despite ranking 12th or 13th in the New Orleans public school system in standardized testing and even then drawing a racially and socio-economically diverse student body, in part because of its proximity to Loyola and Tulane universities.

Riedlinger, 65, refuses to take much credit for what has blossomed under decades of her leadership, instead crediting mentor, parent and teacher contributions for the success of the institution parents now regard so highly.

Yet, even as she rejects the credit, she often gets the blame for the school’s lengthy waiting list and few open slots, for her large salary and, chiefly, for Lusher’s selection of high-achievers at a time when most public schools in the city open their doors to all.

In a rare interview last week, she addressed revived criticism over how Lusher tests and admits students, while saying little about her legal battle over state money for special-needs and gifted children or her recent victory in an ongoing fight against school unionization efforts.

She largely meets disdain with disdain, saying, “I want a dollar for every time somebody had a cup of coffee, a beer or a glass of wine and had a conversation about what Kathy Riedlinger ought to do.”

But what’s most offensive, she said, is when she is portrayed as more concerned with her own scholars than with all the rest of the city’s students. “People who know me well know that is the furthest thing from the truth,” she said.

Admissions policy criticized

When then-area superintendent Everett Williams, who later became New Orleans’ first black schools chief, walked into youthful teacher Riedlinger’s classroom at Warren Easton High School and asked point-blank, “Little girl, what school are you going to apply for?” she was flustered.

Not because he’d called her “little girl” — only Williams, her biggest mentor, could get away with such a phrase — but because he assumed she would leave Easton.

Though she had spent a year in Williams’ and former area superintendent Matthew Proctor’s offices, subbing for an educator evaluator on sabbatical, she considered herself nowhere near ready to run a school like Lusher. But because Williams thought differently, Riedlinger joined a crowded field of candidates to replace the charismatic Frank Fudesco, who had left the post for an employee relations job in the school system’s central office.

She got the job and never left. She also expanded the then 500-student Willow Street elementary school’s footprint, adding a South Carrollton Avenue “extension” in 1990, then a high school after Katrina at the old Alcee Fortier campus on Freret Street, to total 1,700 students today.

Over the years, Riedlinger and Lusher have been on the front lines of a debate about selective-admission schools and the academic and class segregation that critics say they breed.

Long before there was a charter school movement to reform the city’s struggling public campuses, there were magnet schools such as Lusher and her former husband Brian Riedlinger’s Gordon Elementary that sought to bring back white families who had resisted school integration by fleeing to the suburbs or enrolling their children in the city’s numerous private schools.

The result: a school named for a staunch segregationist that by the time of Riedlinger’s arrival had achieved a 50-50 ratio of black and white students, largely thanks to white parents from the nearby universities willing to send their children to a public school if they believed it offered a quality education.

Those parents were involved and financially supportive of the school, but many parents at other schools were not — a point of contention for outsiders who called Lusher and its ilk racist and elitist despite the schools’ diversity.

Critics cared less about one school’s racial diversity and more about the shortcomings of the rest of the city’s mostly black schools, which were severely neglected. As standardized testing became more of a focus over the years, educators at open-admissions schools — which had to accept children of low academic ability and with severe behavior problems — complained about being held to the same accountability standards as those who largely did not have to deal with those populations.

The issue came to a head in the late 1990s, when a civil rights complaint brought federal monitors into the city’s magnet — or selective-admissions — schools to examine their admissions policies. As a result, racial quotas were dropped, and more black students were able to attend the magnet schools, but the accusations of elitism never went away.

Claims of discrimination

Magnets that exist today as selective charter schools find themselves at odds with the majority of the city’s open-admissions charters, which tailor programs to disadvantaged children and adopt “no-excuses” education mottos.

Amid a scarcity of A-rated public schools after Hurricane Katrina, the clamor for Lusher, Audubon Charter and other remaining magnets to ease up on admission restrictions led to the Orleans Parish School Board’s recent decision to end the preferences those schools give to neighborhood residents in fall 2017. Lusher is the only selective school with a neighborhood preference.

Karran Harper Royal, a longtime Lusher parent and a former student of Riedlinger’s, said that choice was the right one. “Kathy basically built Lusher to what it is,” Royal said. “The exclusionary practices, which they call admissions criteria … those are discriminatory practices to keep out certain types of children.”

A 2014 federal complaint, still under investigation, made the same allegations about Lusher and five other charters that don’t participate in the city’s common application process, OneApp; those schools will join that system when their current contracts with the state expire.

This year at Lusher, every kindergartner who lived within a relatively affluent, jagged strip of Uptown got in automatically; students in kindergarten and other grades who did not live in that district had to earn a certain score on an admission matrix in order to be placed in a lottery for one of the remaining slots at the school.

A convoluted set of additional preferences determines which Lusher applicants are admitted first, with seats reserved for staff members’ children, siblings of current students and children of parents affiliated with Tulane University, which donated $1.6 million to help Lusher reopen as a charter after the storm.

Riedlinger, now Lusher’s CEO, disputes charges of discrimination. She said the neighborhood boundaries likely were set before even her predecessor Fudesco’s time and long served to give renting, working-class and special-needs families an opportunity to send their kids to the school.

But two things changed after Katrina, she said: Many of those working-class families left the neighborhood, and more affluent families who lived in that area switched from private to public school. It’s those factors, not her admissions preferences, that led to changes in Lusher’s student body, she said. Today, less than a third of Lusher’s students are black. More than half are white; the rest are a mix of other races, state data show. Only about a fifth are disadvantaged.

Over the years, “It’s been, if you’re in the district and I don’t have room (for your child), you hate me,” Riedlinger said. “If you go to Tulane and I don’t have room, then you don’t like me. … The truth is, I don’t have any more room. So whoever decides who is going to get in, somebody is not going to get in.”

Lusher’s ‘Joan of Arc’

Former Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas, who left the city in 2011, would often tease Riedlinger at public events, calling her “the Joan of Arc of Lusher School.” Riedlinger disliked that name, she said, noting that the French war heroine, while triumphant in battle, was eventually burned to death by her detractors.

Even so, she has been a fierce Lusher advocate. Along with Lake Forest Charter School CEO Mardele Early, she has waged a legal war against a new method of distributing state education money that shifts some dollars from students labeled as “gifted and talented” to those with special needs — a move most special-education advocates and New Orleans school leaders back.

She’s also waged war in the court of public opinion, telling parents in a January email that Lusher could lose more than $1.2 million annually under the new formula, which she said funds “historically underperforming and mismanaged schools under the guise that the successful schools educate ‘privileged’ students.”

In response, Einstein Charter School Principal Shawn Toranto called Riedlinger’s email and a separate letter that Benjamin Franklin High School officials sent to their parents a “disappointing political stunt.”

When asked, Riedlinger would not discuss the lawsuit over distribution of state funds.

Last year, Riedlinger refused to give the name of Lusher’s admissions test to former Jefferson Parish schools administrator and parent Jacob Landry, who said he wanted to be sure it was not an IQ test. Landry criticized her as secretive and litigious after she reportedly told him he could take her to court.

She said disclosing even the name of the test would give savvy parents an unfair admissions advantage, but the Attorney General’s Office ruled that the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, or at least its name, was a public record and she had to divulge it.

And more than a decade ago, when Royal’s son was still at Lusher and parents, teachers and Riedlinger were pushing to expand its middle school to a high school, parents at Sophie B. Wright Middle School on Napoleon Avenue, a failing, soon-to-be-phased-out campus that former Superintendent Anthony Amato had said Lusher could use, asked for Royal’s help.

When Riedlinger found out, she went to Royal. “She said, ‘Karran, I’m so disappointed in you.’… I don’t know if she thought I was still in school, or what,” Royal said.

Riedlinger conceded that she and Royal “may have disagreed” about the Wright issue, but she said she did not bring up the issue with Royal again.

Riedlinger has been paid well for her efforts. Tax forms show her compensation totaled $262,778 in 2013, the highest of any leader in the city whose school publicly reported its information. That too, has sparked criticism.

Objections to her salary are “a major distraction” from real issues plaguing children in the city, she said.

Riedlinger also resents being painted “as this isolationist” who cares only about Lusher. She noted her work with the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, an organization dedicated to helping charter schools improve their operations. And she said she has worked with many educators — she named Patty Glaser, of Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy; Patricia Perkins, of Morris Jeff Community School; and Tiffany Cherrie, of Einstein Charter High School, among others — who now lead their own schools, using and improving upon what they learned at the Uptown campus.

Fighting the union

Over the past six weeks, Riedlinger has taken heat over another issue: unionization. Leaders of an effort to unionize Lusher’s teachers decried her as domineering and said a formally recognized union would ensure teachers have more say in school decisions.

Instead of defending her teachers, some organizers said, Riedlinger often bends to the wishes of wealthy parents, who contribute much time and money to the school’s success.

But those sentiments apparently weren’t shared by a majority of the school’s teachers, who voted 77-54 against a union this month. A small group of paraprofessionals voted 8-5 for formal union representation, but challenges to three additional votes must be resolved before the union may count that outcome as a win.

Riedlinger also has appealed a National Labor Relations Board ruling that the agency had the right to oversee a union election at the school — a ruling that has implications for every charter school in the city.

If its creaming off the top students has put Lusher at odds with a majority of New Orleans open-admissions schools, the unionization issue has given the two sides common ground.

Robbie Evans, of the Choice Foundation, which runs three open-enrollment charter schools with high percentages of low-income chidren, fired off a letter to Lusher’s teachers ahead of the vote, urging them to vote against the union, for example.

Barbara Ferguson, of Research on Reforms, an organization that has taken a hard look at whether charter schools’ much-touted academic gains are merely cases of selective charters choosing smart children, praised Riedlinger and ripped into the union in a recent interview.

“She is one of the most admirable, conscientious and dedicated people that I have met in my life,” said Ferguson, who became New Orleans’ first female schools superintendent on an interim basis after Everett Williams left. “It would be tragic to unionize that school.”

Ferguson said she has never argued specifically against magnet schools, which she said help lure more middle-class black, white, Hispanic and Asian families to public school systems.

Riedlinger said claims that parents rule the roost at Lusher are false. Its Parent-Teacher-Student Association is supportive, not autocratic, she said.

And while as chief executive, she does make the final decisions, she is not autocratic either, she said. Teachers and students worked with her to come up with Project P.R.I.D.E., a positive approach to school discipline that has been part of Lusher’s culture for decades, she said.

A group of 20 people, not just her, wrote the school’s charter days before Katrina, she said.

And in one of the few times she got teary-eyed during a three-hour interview, she described how much she missed looking out of “her” office window of 25 years at Willow Street, as dozens of parents would work each year to set up for Lusher’s annual Crawfish Boil. It’s Principal Sheila Nelson’s office now.

“Working with the Lusher community has been a real gift in my life,” she said. “I just want to make sure that I share credit for everything that we’ve been able to do.”