It’s hard to say who will win Saturday’s runoff for an open seat on the Orleans Parish School Board, but it’s clear enough that the Ira Thomas era is over.
Thomas, who resigned from the District 1 seat after he was indicted for taking a bribe, was the board’s firebrand, often fighting battles with the school district’s superintendent, his fellow board members and the state’s Recovery School District, which has governed most of the city’s schools since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
Neither of the two men still vying to replace Thomas after the first round of voting in October seem likely to take up that role.
John Brown, a former teacher and principal who was appointed by board members to serve as an interim replacement in March, has had a relatively quiet tenure so far. There have been some split votes but no fireworks.
“He brings a new perspective to the table, and a calm, measured demeanor, which is a departure from what we’ve had in the past,” said board member Woody Koppel, who often was at odds with Thomas.
And while Koppel is backing Brown, he said the prospect of challenger Keith Barney winning the seat does not keep him up at night. “We’re not dealing with a situation where someone is way off in left field and you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” he said.
Brown and Barney both have said they would support efforts by the district’s new superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., to bring New Orleans schools now under the RSD back under local control.
All the schools still under the state’s watch are now autonomous charter schools, and they have the option to come back under the board’s supervision after they meet certain benchmarks. Lewis is trying to persuade them to take that step, promising the same degree of independence they’ve enjoyed under state auspices.
Brown, 69, has extensive experience in New Orleans public schools. He served as a principal at a half-dozen campuses over two decades. After Katrina, he led a fellowship program at the School Leadership Center. He also has been serving on the board of New Orleans Charter Math and Science Academy, an Uptown high school.
Barney, 53, teaches special education students at Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly and serves as board president at Mary D. Coghill Charter School.
Although Barney trailed Brown in the primary, picking up 31 percent of the vote to Brown’s 38 percent, he claims some big-name endorsements, including former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, state Sen. Ed Murray and New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell.
Brown has the support of most of his fellow board members and recently won endorsements from Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Assessor Erroll Williams and state Rep. Joe Bouie.
District 1 includes much of New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward.