If named the next superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, Leslie Brown said, she would be “collaborator in chief,” touring not just the schools, but churches, community centers and housing associations to nail down what people really want in public education in the Capital City.

“That’s how this works, by listening, and going back and listening again,” Brown said while making her pitch at town hall and school board meetings in Baton Rouge.

Nakia Towns, the other finalist for the job, prefers a less deliberative leadership approach, saying at those meetings that while she listens and builds consensus, she does so only for so long: “I don’t sit and analyze; I move us forward based on the information that we have.”

Over three days last week, Brown, 62, and Towns, 46, laid out their cases for why they should lead Louisiana’s second-largest traditional school district. They spoke directly to the public at a town hall Wednesday night and again the following night during separate interviews with the board.

The final selection is set for Thursday.

The winner will need to get to work quickly. Current Superintendent Warren Drake is set to retire June 30. The new school year starts just five weeks later on Aug. 6.

Towns is chief of staff for Hamilton County schools in Tennessee. It’s the number two job in a school district of about 45,000 students; slightly larger than East Baton Rouge’s 41,000-plus students. Towns left a career in corporate America in 2010 for a job as a school administrator in Knoxville. She later spent three years with the Tennessee Department of Education before coming to Chattanooga.

While she’s never worked as a schoolteacher, Towns said, she “moonlighted” in education for years, serving as a tutor, volunteer and Saturday school teacher, before changing careers. She said she retains a reverence for the work of teachers and has jumped deeply into educational research, along the way earning a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“I come to you as someone who is a proven and tested leader who has a set of backgrounds and experiences that has uniquely prepared me for this role,” Towns said at those public meetings in Baton Rouge. “It has uniquely prepared me for such a time as this.”

Brown is chief portfolio services officer for Broward County in Florida, one of 10 chief-level administrators and one of more than a dozen people in the senior cabinet. But Broward County is not just any school district. It’s the seventh largest school district in the country, with more than 270,000 students. Its biggest city is Fort Lauderdale.

In her current job, which she’s held since 2013, Brown oversees an array of magnet, charter schools and special programs. She’s spent 41 years in education, 12 of them as a classroom teacher. From 2004 to 2007, she served as principal of a charter school in Hollywood, Florida.

Brown earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

Brown draws not only on her own classroom experience, but that of her husband, Bill, a high school math teacher who tells her daily what district initiatives “are doing to that classroom teacher and what those systems are doing to that school.”

Brown is white and Towns is black. It's unclear what role their race might play, if any, in the board's decision. Some 71 percent of the students in East Baton Rouge Parish are black, while 11 percent are white and 11 percent are Hispanic. However, the population of the school district is split almost evenly between black and white, resulting in five white and four black board members.

Brown said at those public meetings last week that she understands it is “important for students of color to see people who look like them in high positions,” but said the board needs to pick the “very best superintendent” for this critical job.

“I’ve got some great skills too,” Brown said with a smile.

Towns, alluding to the protests occurring across the country, said she has personal experience with what is driving them.

“I know what it’s like when someone looks at you and makes a judgment about you based on the way you look,” Towns said at those meetings.

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Brown and Towns were part of an initial field of 24 applicants, including two in-house candidates.

The finalists both have taken part in the selective Chiefs for Change fellowship program, a launching pad for many future school superintendents.

"Either way this goes, East Baton Rouge is going to be in good hands,” Towns has said.

Brown has ties to Baton Rouge. She moved several times growing up before landing in Fort Lauderdale. Brown’s parents, however, stayed in Baton Rouge as did a younger sister, who went to LSU and married a local. Brown’s parents both died within the past year.

Brown said she’s passed on other job opportunities outside of Florida, but when she saw the opening in Baton Rouge she knew it was right.

“I know where my home is, I know where my history is, and I know there is some significant work that I would like to do here,” she has said.

Towns, who is divorced, has visited Baton Rouge several times, but her roots are in central Georgia.

Towns told how she was raised for many years by her grandmother so that her mother could pursue her education in social work, even though there were 10 other children in the household.

Towns’ elementary school in Athens diagnosed her with a speech delay and did not challenge her much academically, but her grandmother knew the little girl was smart.

Using the address of a coworker of her mom, Towns transferred in second grade to a much better elementary school across town. She was soon moved to a gifted program and then skipped ahead a grade because she was so advanced. She’s never forgotten how important that school transfer was for her.

“I strongly believe that every child deserves a world of opportunities open to them,” Towns has said.

Brown and Towns also discussed what they would focus on to get schools back on track after COVID-19.

Brown noted the speed with which Broward County schools shifted to digital instruction. She said East Baton Rouge can use this crisis as an opportunity.

”This can be the most innovative time in education if we get this right,” Brown has said.

Towns said “blended learning” — a mix of in-person and online instruction — should have been the norm before COVID-19 and definitely needs to be the norm now. But she said she’d start the new year focusing on something else: addressing the health and well-being of children traumatized by this experience.

“There were plenty of children for whom this was not a fun summer vacation,” Towns said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.