For the past decade, the Orleans Parish School Board has been set on restoring its former role as the governing body for all of the city’s public schools. And all three candidates vying to replace former board member Ira Thomas in Saturday’s election agree that it’s time for local control after a decade of state supervision over most campuses.
In fact, there appear to be few ideological divisions among the candidates for the District 1 seat, which represents the Lower 9th Ward and most of New Orleans East.
All three say the independent charter schools that have been operating under the state’s Recovery School District should start answering to the locally elected board.
And while they express some reservations about different aspects of the charter movement, all of them agree that the autonomy it has given principals to run their own schools without micromanaging from a central office has been a good thing.
That could be good news for the district’s new superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., who was hired in March with a mandate to bring schools back under the board’s overview without compromising the independence that many credit for helping to lift test scores and reduce dropout rates.
The incumbent in Saturday’s election is John Brown, a veteran New Orleans teacher and principal who was appointed on an interim basis after Thomas pleaded guilty to taking a bribe and resigned. He faces Keith Barney, a teacher who also serves as board chairman for a local charter school, and Shawon Bernard, also a longtime teacher and administrator.
Mirroring the demographics of the district, all three candidates are African-American and Democrats. If a runoff is needed, it will be Nov. 21.
Brown, 69, has served on the board during six months of relative calm, thanks at least in part to the departure of Thomas. Before he was indicted, Thomas was the board’s most combative member, part of a minority wing on the seven-member panel that frequently sparred with the four-member majority over the performance of a long-serving interim superintendent and the choice of who should replace him.
Brown casts himself as a unifier, someone who remains neutral in the ideological battles that have exploded in cities across the country over the merits of charter schools versus traditional ones.
He acknowledges that his own district has constituents who are fiercely opposed to the charter movement. But he says those critics are typically willing to listen to him when he argues that charters shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush.
“I’ve been very honest with them,” said Brown, who serves on the board of the New Orleans Charter Math and Science Academy. “I said, ‘Don’t be so quick to condemn charter schools.’ ”
Brown has the most extensive résumé in the race, having served two decades as a principal at several different New Orleans schools before partially retiring in 2003. And that experience partly informs his take on the charter movement.
“The district dictated what we did, what direction we went in. We had some teachers who did not meet muster,” Brown recalled of the old school district. “But we still had some really good, outstanding schools.”
After Katrina, Brown served as head of the School Leadership Center, a nonprofit group that trains school leaders. Lewis, the new superintendent, was a graduate of the group’s fellowship program while Brown was running it.
Ideologically, Barney, 53, does not seem all that far from Brown.
Son of the late Clarence Barney, longtime head of the local Urban League chapter, he teaches special education students at Arthur Ashe Charter School, which is run by a group called FirstLine Schools.
He said that FirstLine’s founder, an outspoken champion of the charter movement named Jay Altman, helped open his eyes to the logic of a system where schools operate independently.
“Charter schools are not perfect. Not even my own school is,” Barney said, but he argues that principals need to be the ones making decisions, rather than far-off administrators in a central office. “They’re with the kids every day. They should control what goes on at their school, and we hold them accountable.”
At the same time, Barney is wary of some of what comes with the new arrangement. He mentioned how early some students have to catch buses to get to school under a system where families aren’t guaranteed a place at the campus in their neighborhood. And he is opposed to school closings or takeovers — which can happen if charter school operators can’t lift test scores quickly enough — in all but the most extreme cases. Even so, Barney calls himself the most forward-looking candidate in the race. He said either of his opponents would make great board members, but also pointed out that they both served in a pre-Hurricane Katrina school system that was struggling.
Brown, for instance, was the principal in the 1990s at Alcee Fortier High School, which was labeled as “failing” when Louisiana first started handing out school performance scores. He led schools “that were not good schools back in the day,” Barney said.
Brown’s campaign responded by pointing out that he was twice named Principal of the Year and that by the time the state’s accountability system had kicked in, he had moved from Fortier to Harriet Tubman Elementary School, whose score put it above the state’s failing bar.
Bernard, 49, said she was drawn into the race for the District 1 seat by her involvement in the controversy over John McDonogh High School. She sat on a community panel organized to help bring the school back under the local board after several failed attempts by the Recovery District to turn it around.
A former teacher at John McDonogh, she saw the struggle over the school as an example of how unresponsive state officials could be to community outcry. So when the board seat opened up, she “saw it as an opportunity to continue the fight for the return of all schools,” Bernard said.
On the charter movement, Bernard said she supports the autonomy it has given principals to make decisions for the students in their buildings. And she said she supports the idea of schools remaining independent once they come back to the board.
But she also is an advocate of neighborhood schools. Expressing the same concerns about long bus trips that Barney does, she said that the OneApp, the city’s relatively new central enrollment system, should be reorganized so that students have the right of first refusal at the school closest to them.
“The OneApp isn’t working for parents,” she said.