After nearly five hours of debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to promote top administrator Adam Smith to take over as interim superintendent until the board can find a permanent replacement for Leslie Brown, who resigned last month after only two months in charge.

The vote did not come easy, with multiple attempts to come up with an alternate leadership scheme that would have kept Smith out of the top job.

When it finally happened, just before 10 p.m., there was  a standing ovation from the audience. Smith is one of two associate superintendents and a 24-year veteran of the school system who has risen through the ranks and is well liked by many. Some pushed the board to go even further and install Smith in the job permanently — Smith was a semifinalist in the search that led to Brown’s hiring but failed to make the final cut.

Smith complimented his staff and school employees who’ve worked, many without a break, since the coronavirus pandemic hit Louisiana in March.

“Any successes we have had in this district were because of the team and any failures were because of myself,” Smith said.

Earlier in the meeting, the board narrowly rejected an attempt to hire someone else permanently for the job: Nakia Towns, a top administrator in Chattanooga, Tenn. Towns, who serves as chief of staff in Hamilton County public schools, was runner-up to Brown during the superintendent search. The motion to make Towns the sole finalist failed by a 4-5 margin in a vote that broke along racial lines.

The four Black board members — Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson — voted to limit the search to Towns, who is Black. The five White members — Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Mike Gaudet and David Tatman — voted No.

The rejection of Towns combined with the resistance to elevating Smith, who is also Black, prompted lot of people of criticism Thursday of White board members on racial grounds.

Former School Board member Jackie Mims said that “race is laced” through the efforts to deny Smith “and you can’t convince me otherwise.”

Board President Gaudet said the calls of racism and jeering were off base and they inhibit having a civil debate.

“I’m just disappointed that we can’t talk about issues and about what we’re facing without resorting to calling people names,” Gaudet said.

Board member Bernard said Smith was always her first choice interim superintendent.

“I work with him day-in-day-out,” Bernard said. “He is the go-to person.”

Bernard, however, said the racial criticims directed Thursday against her and other board members were unfair.

“I won’t own that,” she said. “I’m not a bigot.”

Bernard was the target of a flood of criticism in June when she initially suggested that Robert E. Lee freed his slaves, suggesting it was unnecessary to change the name of the school in Baton Rouge named after him. She subsequently apologized for her comments and voted with the rest of the board to change the school’s name to Liberty High.

Brown took over as superintendent on Aug. 3. Seven weeks later she abrupty went on emergency medical leave for an unspecified illness. Two week later she resigned.

Smith’s promotion into Brown's job will last just six months.

Austin, Texas-based search firm JG Consulting is returning to lead a new, albeit shorter, superintendent search. The search firm is honoring a clause in its original contract saying it will conduct a second, free search if the person hired left “for any reason” within two years of being hired.

Board members Collins and Howard voted No to rehiring JG Consulting, while board member Lanus stepped out of the room and didn’t vote.

JG’s President and Chief Executive Officer James Guerra, who joined in by phone, laid out two schedules, a three-month one that would end as early as Dec. 31 and a five-month schedule that would end by Feb. 28. The approved motion, however, does not make a choice, saying only to wrap up a search “as soon as practical.”

A related decision made Thursday was to start advertising for the position as soon as possible, which state law specifies must last at least 30 days. That means the board could technically hire someone as early as the board’s Nov. 19 regular meeting.

Board member Tatman said it’s quite possible the search will continue into 2021.

“With the holidays, that’s going to create great challenges for us,” Tatman said.

The debate over Smith took up much of the meeting.

Belinda Davis, a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she has a long working relationship with Smith and said he is adept at getting things done.

“He is in my opinion greatly underappreciated, and you should look seriously at him and all that he could bring to this job,” Davis said

Mims said hiring someone with a local background is a must and that now is not the time to experiment by bringing in someone new.

“We need stability, and we need stability right now,” Mims said.

Not everyone was complimentary of Smith.

“We need new leadership and Adam is not an option,” said local resident Charles Hines, who posted his comments online. “The system is broken and he is part of that system.”

When it came time to vote on who will serve as interim superintendent, Gaudet balked at the idea of promoting Smith to interim. Gaudet was complimentary of Smith's skills. After the meeting, he said that Smith was always "his first choice." But during the meeting, Gaudet expressed concern that making Smith interim would lead applicants for the permanent job not to apply, thinking that Smith was a shoo-in.

“I do worry a great deal that Adam (Smith) as interim superintendent will impact the quality of applicants we will get,” Gaudet said.

Dyason made a motion to keep the setup that’s been in place since Brown took ill with both Smith and fellow associate superintendent Ben Necaise in charge, but pulled her motion after she saw little support.

Then Gaudet made a new substitute motion to bring back Warren Drake, who retired in July after five years at the helm and has offered to return if needed. Gaudet’s motion failed 2-7, with only him and Bellue voting yes.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.