The Orleans Parish School Board finally put nearly three years of deadlock behind it Tuesday night as it approved a contract with the system’s new superintendent worth at least $192,000 a year.
But less than an hour later, the board found itself at yet another impasse, unable to muster majority support for any candidate to serve as an interim board member for the next several months to replace Ira Thomas, who resigned this month after being charged with accepting a bribe.
And that indecision apparently means Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal will have a rare opportunity to appoint someone to an elected board in staunchly Democratic New Orleans.
The School Board controls a handful of public schools in New Orleans, where most schools were taken over by the state-run Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina and are now managed by independent charter school operators.
The School Board got started on its business Tuesday night with a rare show of unity, a 6-0 vote to approve a contract with Henderson Lewis. Lewis, the superintendent of the East Feliciana Parish schools, was picked to lead the Orleans Parish schools by a unanimous vote of the board in January following years of deadlock and failure in previous efforts to name a superintendent.
“We will redefine public education here in New Orleans,” said Lewis, who starts work on Wednesday.
Lewis’ contract calls for a minimum annual salary of $180,000 to start, plus another $12,000 a year to cover vehicle expenses. He’ll be eligible for a 3 percent raise each year he receives a satisfactory evaluation from the board, starting in the 2016-17 school year, and he will receive the same raises provided to other professional school employees.
Lewis can also receive a yearly bonus of up to $20,000 for meeting specific targets set by the board. The first set of targets calls for next year’s student performance on state tests and the ACT to equal or exceed this year’s level and for the high-school expulsion rate to drop by 1 percent.
Picking a new board member proved to be a thornier task.
The School Board was charged with finding a temporary replacement for Thomas, who resigned early this month before pleading not guilty last week to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. Thomas, who also resigned his position as chief of Southern University at New Orleans’ police force, is accused of taking a $5,000 bribe in exchange for agreeing to rig the bidding on a janitorial contract.
About a half-dozen people applied to fill Thomas’ seat until a special election on Oct. 24 can decide who will represent the district, which covers New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, for the rest of Thomas’ term.
The board was evenly split between two candidates: John Brown, who has served as principal in a number of the district’s schools, and motivational speaker Happy Johnson.
Board members cast ballots three times to try to make a selection, with the same result each time. Board members Nolan Marshall, Cynthia Cade and Leslie Ellison cast their votes for Brown, while board President Seth Bloom and members Sarah Usdin and Woody Koppel voted for Johnson.
The board has until Thursday to elect its own member. Otherwise, Jindal gets to make the appointment.
Bloom said he did not expect there would be a special board meeting to try to break the deadlock before then.