Isaac Joseph was supposed to be the calm after earlier storms.
Following a hard-fought election in 2014 and the increasingly tempestuous tenure of business-backed Superintendent James Meza, the Jefferson Parish School Board's newly elected union-backed majority in 2015 picked Joseph, a career Jefferson Parish teacher and administrator, to lead the state's largest school system.
Two and a half years later, however, the school system seems adrift.
The district seems mired as a C in the state's scoring system, down from a B in 2015.
Joseph will be gone when his contract expires at the end of June. Some board members want him gone sooner than that.
Others on the board have taken an even more adversarial tone. Cedric Floyd, whom Joseph once called "a cohort and a friend," took the lead in launching a board investigation last year into whether Joseph committed unspecified violations of board policy or state law.
The antagonism doesn't just flow from the board to the superintendent. The unity of the board faction that became the majority in 2015 was always tenuous, and it has disintegrated over the past year.
Floyd has alienated several board members with his often heated rhetoric and his vow to "uproot" some of his colleagues in this fall's elections. At least two other board members who voted to hire Joseph were among the leaders in saying that he now needs to go.
There is even dissent about when the board should hire a new superintendent. Some want to hire one as quickly as possible. Floyd has urged the board to install an interim until after a new board is seated in January 2019.
But even though 2017 may have been the year these battles moved into the public eye, the foundations for the current chaos were laid in 2015, when Joseph was hired.
That year, the board's new majority faction took control after an intense election season that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into races by both unions and business groups. Two business-friendly board members were ousted, ushering in a new majority that was sympathetic to the teachers union.
That faction chose Joseph to succeed the business-backed Meza, who had shepherded the system from a D to a B in his less than four years at the helm, but who also battled with system employees and unions.
In many ways, Joseph is the anti-Meza. His calm, soft-spoken demeanor and team-oriented approach contrasted with Meza's more direct and confrontational management style. When he was hired, one of Joseph's main goals was to reassure employees and restore a level of peace in the system, he said.
No vote of confidence
"Morale was low," Joseph recalled Friday. He felt he needed to "calm the seas" of the school system.
But the board that hired Joseph also opted to give him only an 18-month contract, a move that rankled.
"An 18-month contract is not a vote of confidence," he said. The job "is impossible if you don't have the support of the elected body," he added.
Then, in 2016, the district's performance score, according to the state, dipped from a B to a C.
Nevertheless, it wasn't until the board met late that year to consider Joseph's evaluation that he had a hint that something was seriously wrong. The board met for several hours in closed session, eventually deciding to extend Joseph for another 18 months but not awarding him the performance bonuses in his contract.
"At the end of the year, we renewed his contract, but he did not receive a favorable evaluation," said Melinda Doucet. Doucet was one of the newly elected board members who voted to hire Joseph in 2015, but a little more than a year later, she was rethinking her decision.
"When the test scores started coming back, we had slipped drastically," she said. "I checked individual school test scores at that time" and the trends were downward, she said.
Overall, the district had gone from an 87.7 score, good for a B in 2015, to a 79.4, or a C in 2016. Doucet noted that Jefferson's ranking among all the state school systems dropped from 31st in 2015 to somewhere in the 50s.
School administrators, including Joseph, counter that taking such a straightforward view of the letter grade results does a disservice to the district.
For the three years prior to 2016, the system had earned 10 "progress points," or points awarded for having 30 percent of students achieve a "basic" level on state standardized tests. Then the threshold for earning the progress points was raised to 50 percent plus one. In 2016, Jefferson Parish schools fell just short of earning the extra points, which would have kept the system's B rating.
The letter grades also fail to account for the challenges particular to the state's largest and perhaps most diverse district, school officials say. The parish has received an influx of students whose first language was not English over the last few years, Joseph said. Transitioning from a written test to an online test while state standards were increasing also may have contributed to the decline, he said.
The loss of Doucet's support was a major blow to Joseph's prospects for continued tenure at the top. Another was the death of Ray St. Pierre, a staunchly union-supporting board member, in July 2017. St. Pierre's replacement, Tiffany Kuhn, voted with the majority not to renew Joseph's contract.
Then, a month after St. Pierre's death, Cedric Floyd, who helped get Joseph hired in the first place, announced that he planned to ask the board to suspend Joseph due to "possible violations of state law and board policy."
The board eventually hired an attorney to look into Floyd's allegations, which have never been made public. That attorney produced a report, which is currently under review by the board. Joseph was never suspended, but the cloud of suspicion lingered. When the board voted to notify Joseph that his contract would not be renewed, Floyd voted with the majority.
'What happens to the kids?'
Even if the investigation concludes that Joseph did nothing wrong, the allegations were the final blow, said board President Mark Morgan, who also voted to hire Joseph in 2015.
"We have a school system in decline, and we have a superintendent whose credibility is being questioned publicly by one of the board members," Morgan said. "Had he been dealt a different situation, how well could he have done? You just don't know."
The souring of the relationship between Joseph and Floyd, onetime allies, has been the most visible of the challenges Joseph has faced with the board. But the mercurial Floyd has fired shots not only at Joseph but also at his fellow board members.
Floyd also is facing harassment complaints from two women who served as the board's secretary. Those haven't stopped him from pushing the board not to hire a new permanent superintendent now but to delay until after a new board has been seated next January. His suggestion has, so far, found little traction.
Morgan has said he thinks it's important to get a new superintendent in place as soon as possible. To wait until the summer or next year would waste an entire school year before the new leader can start making significant changes, he said.
Board member Marion Bonura, a former coach who remains a Joseph supporter, agreed with Morgan.
"What are we going to do, sit in limbo for the next 11 months?" Bonura asked. "If we are in limbo, what the hell happens to the kids?"
Bonura is one board member who is willing to speak up in defense of Joseph's performance.
"To get a program going the way you want it, it takes five years," Bonura said. "I don't know if this is a fair evaluation of what the superintendent has done."
Bonura also voted to notify Joseph that his contract was not being renewed, but he said he did so to preserve his right under board rules to bring the matter up for reconsideration at a future board meeting.
"I believe in this superintendent," he said. "I don't think he's had the time."
Regardless, ads for the job have been posted in the board's official journal. Feb. 23 is the deadline for applications.
Already, some board members have floated Cade Brumley's name as a potential replacement. Brumley is the superintendent of the DeSoto Parish School System in northwestern Louisiana, which has about one-tenth as many students as Jefferson Parish.
The backdrop for all of this is the board elections slated for November. All nine board members are up for re-election, if they choose to run, and many expect to see a repeat of 2014's spirited contests.
Floyd made reference to that at a recent meeting, when he warned the board, "It's going to a be a long 2018 because it's a political season."
Joseph's tenure, in any event, will be over before the campaigning gets hot and heavy.
Sitting behind his desk in his third-floor office at the school system's administrative offices in Harvey, Joseph leaned back when asked what he would like to tell his successor.
"Good luck," he said, waggling his eyebrows. Then he laughed and added, "Seriously, I would like to tell him that we have a great school system."
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct ration of students between DeSoto and Jefferson parish school systems.