Ending a yearlong search and after a meeting that stretched past midnight, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board selected an administrator from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to take over the leadership of Louisiana’s second-largest traditional school district.

Leslie Brown was selected early Friday morning by a 5-4 margin, edging out the other finalist, Nakia Towns, a school administrator from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Here’s how the vote went:

For Brown: Board members Connie Bernard, Dawn Collins, Jill Dyason, Mike Gaudet and David Tatman.

For Towns: Board members Mark Bellue, Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

"I am truly honored to be the next leader of @EBRSchools. This is a homecoming for me, and I cannot wait to see you soon," Brown tweeted right after the vote.

Brown is white and Towns is black. The vote was preceded by a fierce and at time personal debate over renaming Lee High School.

On the superintendent choice, two board members crossed racial lines: Collins, who is black, went for Brown, while Bellue, who is white, went for Towns.

After the vote, Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, tore into Collins.

“You failed us," Chambers said. "You voted against a black woman tonight.”

The search to replace outgoing Superintendent Warren Drake began last summer, a search which was delayed for several weeks by the coronavirus outbreak.

Towns serves as chief of staff for Hamilton County, Tennessee, public schools; Brown is chief of portfolio services for the Broward County, Florida, school system.

The board did not take up voting on the finalists until shortly before midnight Thursday, more than six hours after the meeting started. By that time, the audience of 70 people had dwindled to only a few people; the rest opted to send in comments online.

"Can you please order food for the people still in the audience?" Colleen Kissel asked. "They are the true heroes."

Board members Howard, Lanus and Ware-Jackson, all African Americans, urged the board to go for Towns.

"She has a proven track record in raising the bar," Ware-Jackson said.

Lanus urged the board to set aside the rancor of the Lee High debate and go for Towns: "Do the right thing."

None of those who voted for Brown explained their vote.

"I think we have two fantastic candidates," said board member Tatman.

The public comments were all over the map, with both getting a mix of praise, criticism and a lot in between.

Board watcher James Finney said the board missed the chance to hire qualified locals, so it should have started over. But if it has to choose, it should not pick Towns, he said.

"This district does a better job than Hamilton County, Tennessee, with children of color," Finney said.

Several speakers questioned the fact that Towns has not been a classroom teacher. Brown, on the other hand, taught for 12 years; her teacher’s license in Florida certifies her in art as well in educational leadership.

Still, some, like teacher and parent Robin Clark, said Towns was impressive and is the clear choice.

“She offers a platform and a performance record that is exemplary," Clark said. "You would remiss to let her go.”

Anna Fogle, an active parent, said after doing a lot of research, neither Brown nor Towns would work out well.

“Although both are highly qualified, neither is a right fit for this district," Fogle said.

One online commentator had an unusual suggestion: "Give them both the job. We need all the help we can get."

To ease the transition, the board has agreed to extend Drake’s contract a month so he can help the new superintendent get ready for the new school year, which starts Aug. 6. Brown will not officially take over as superintendent until Aug. 1.

Brown arrives at a time of great uncertainty. Brick-and-mortar schools closed March 13 due to the coronavirus and the reopening details remain unclear. Distance education will continue at some level for the foreseeable future.

The virus has caused damage to the state and local economy, which will likely force budget cutting in the near future. The new superintendent is facing increasing competition from charter schools and the possibility of a fourth breakaway school district in the newly approved City of St. George.

Two in-house school administrators, Adam Smith and Quentina Timoll, did not make the finalist cut, nor did a prominent out-of-state candidate, Marshall Tuck of Los Angeles, who was strongly promoted by a few business and community leaders. Timoll days later accepted a job as chief of staff to incoming Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley.

Broward County schools, where Brown has spent the bulk of her career, is the seventh largest school district in the country, with more than 270,000 students. In her current job, which she’s held since 2013, Brown oversees an array of magnet, charter schools and special programs. From 2004 to 2007, she served as principal of a charter school in Hollywood, Florida.

Brown has ties to Baton Rouge. Her family, which moved several times while she was growing, made a final move in the 1970s from Fort Lauderdale to Baton Rouge during her senior year of high school. She finished school in Florida, spent the summer in Louisiana, but then returned to Fort Lauderdale.

Her parents, however, stayed in Baton Rouge, as did a younger sister, who went to LSU and married a local. 


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.