A coalition of local civic groups has drawn up what amounts to a job description for members of the Orleans Parish School Board, a body that is poised before long to regain its old place as the single governing authority for the city's public schools.
Forward New Orleans, a group made up of 20 different organizations, has met with all four of the board members who won this year’s elections by default, as well as most of those hoping to win seats in the remaining competitive races on Nov. 8.
The group asked all of them to sign a pledge covering eight different commitments: to expand high-quality, high-performing schools; serve students equitably; ensure equal access to schools; enforce school autonomy with accountability; act as a responsible resource manager; engage in system-wide strategic planning; collaborate to implement best practices; and promote academic excellence and equity for all public school students.
Each commitment comes with specific steps the group wants board members to carry out over the next few years, as the bulk of city schools return to local control after spending the past decade under state auspices.
For instance, under the first heading, on expanding high-quality schools, the group asks board members to establish a policy against allowing any one charter school operator to enroll more than 15 percent of the district’s students.
That rule would be aimed at making sure the city has a “diverse group of school operators.” Since Hurricane Katrina, almost all public schools in New Orleans have been turned over to privately run charter organizations. The enrollment cap is designed to keep any of them from getting too big and running into the same pitfalls as the old centralized school system.
The specifics of each pledge were hashed out among the various groups involved, though Leslie Jacobs, a former School Board member who has been an influential backer of the charter movement, played a significant role in shaping the document.
The organizations that have endorsed the pledge range from the 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans to the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and the Urban League.
All four board members who won seats this year without opposition — Sarah Usdin, John Brown, Ben Kleban and Ethan Ashley — signed on to the pledge.
So did most of those running in competitive races, although Walter Perique Umrani, who is running against incumbent Leslie Ellison in District 4, objected to the steps outlined under the heading on school autonomy. He said the board needs to exert more control over daily operations at the schools than is happening now.
“They’re funded with taxpayer dollars,” he said of the city’s charter schools. “We need a citywide approach to get substantial improvement.”
Alvin Crusto and Kwame Smith, who are both challenging incumbent Nolan Marshall Jr. in District 7, haven’t signed on to any aspect of the pledge.