Jefferson schools boss agrees to stay on the job a bit longer _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent James Meza talks about his tenure and his accomplishments during that time and where the school system is at today in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent James Meza has agreed to put off plans to leave the system at the end of this month after members of the School Board said his departure in the middle of what is expected to be a heated election season could cause instability in the district.

Meza said Wednesday he has not decided how much longer he will stay. But board members said they worried that his departure before the Nov. 4 primary election could turn the search for the school district’s next leader into a campaign issue and potentially harm the chances of Meza’s own choice as his successor, Chief Academic Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams, by keeping candidates challenging incumbent members from having input into the search.

Some board members have already thrown their support behind Blouin-Williams or have said they would prefer to hire a new superintendent from within the district rather than conduct a national search.

“I would think whoever the new board is, I wouldn’t want to leave them out of any decision,” board member Larry Dale said. “That’s a good way to put her in a bad place with the new board, if we make decisions that they have to live with.”

Meza has led the Jefferson Parish public schools since 2011 and announced earlier this summer that he would be stepping down this month instead of staying through the end of his contract in January.

While Meza said he and his family had looked forward to his retirement from a job that is “a very challenging position with a lot of wear and tear,” he said it was important that the transition go smoothly.

“We don’t want leadership succession to be a threat to the quality of educational services we offer to students,” he said.

Practical concerns about where he will land next will also play a role in his decision, he said.

“I’ve had several opportunities offered, mostly on a consultant basis, but I haven’t signed any of that,” Meza said. “So the time is still open. I want to manage that, though, to make sure I don’t lose those opportunities.”

Board members held a closed-door meeting to discuss the issue Wednesday, calling both Meza and Blouin-Williams into the session. By the end, Meza had agreed to stay on and to deliver a transition plan to the sitting board, possibly by its October meeting.

Board President Mark Morgan said he was very pleased Meza would be staying on, at least for a while.

“Now more than ever we need his leadership of the school system and his leadership to transition us to a new superintendent,” Morgan said, referencing the upcoming election.

All but one of the seats on the School Board are being contested in the Nov. 4 election, and at least two new members will be sworn in next January because of term limits and the creation of a new district.

The election is expected to be a hard-fought battle between members of a business-backed majority elected in 2010 and educators who say those members’ policies have hurt teachers and their union, the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.

Both Morgan and board member Ray St. Pierre said making sure the system runs smoothly through the election is important. Both also said they don’t want to do a national search for the system’s next leader, preferring to promote someone from inside the system who already understands its issues and challenges. That approach likely would boost Blouin-Williams’ chances.

Dale was more explicit about his support for Meza’s choice.

“With us, she’s the front-runner,” he said.

The issue, however, is whether putting Blouin-Williams or another applicant in the superintendent’s job, either temporarily or permanently, would prevent outsiders who are elected in the coming balloting from having input into the decision, Dale said. It also could make her and her policies a target of candidates in the election or put her in a situation of making decisions without knowing who her bosses would be in just a few months, he said.

“I’d hate to throw her into that,” Dale said. “The timing just wasn’t good for her or the system, for that matter.”

While he said he would prefer to see Meza stay through the election, Dale said having a transition plan in place would ease the situation.

“I think as long as (Meza) has some plan so that she has a very smooth transition into the interim job, I think I could live with that instead of just disappearing in two weeks and this is all in our lap,” Dale said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.