The Orleans Parish School Board will elect a new president on Thursday, and among the contenders is Vice President Leslie Ellison, whose views on LGBTQ rights have stirred controversy in the past.
Ellison will face off with Woody Koppel, who also intends to seek the post.
Of the board members who could be reached on Tuesday, Nolan Marshall said he is willing to support Ellison, who he believes will likely be elected. But Sarah Usdin said she has declined a request to back Ellison's candidacy because of her past opposition to protections for gay and transgender students, a position she took in the name of religious freedom.
Ellison is an administrator at Gideon Christian Fellowship International, a nondenominational church, and was elected in 2012 to represent the 4th District, which includes Marigny, Bywater, Algiers and parts of the French Quarter.
If elected as president, she would replace John Brown, who has served as president for two years and is barred from running for re-election.
While the role of board president is largely ceremonial, it comes with certain powers, such as setting meeting agendas, signing contracts and assigning members to various committees.
In a statement, Ellison said her past work as a board member makes her qualified for the position.
Among her accomplishments, she said, is her support for policy measures to re-direct more finances to classrooms; to renew millages to maintain $38 million in annual funds for books, supplies, drop-out prevention and salaries; and to approve charter renewals for high-performing schools.
But Usdin, and possibly other board members, have misgivings about some of Ellison’s past actions and statements -- which Ellison did not address in her new statement.
In 2012, Ellison testified at the state Capitol in support of a bill by Sen. A.G. Crowe that would have let charter schools exclude LGBTQ students, arguing that doing otherwise could hinder the schools' religious freedom.
At the time, Ellison was head of a charter school, and she told lawmakers that she could not sign a contract — a charter renewal application — that was presented to her because it contained an expansive anti-discrimination clause, which she said violated the doctrines of separation of powers and freedom of religion.
The Louisiana Department of Education clause said the state agency barred discrimination based on "sexual orientation, athletic performance, special need, proficiency in the English language or academic achievement," according to a 2012 article in The Times-Picayune.
"I could not, in good conscience, sign the contract," Ellison told state lawmakers then, according to video of the testimony that was shared this week by Peter Cook, an education activist who publishes a blog where he wrote recently about Ellison's potential presidency.
She said: "The Louisiana Department of Education has, at will, inserted 'sexual orientation' into the anti-discrimination policy included in our charter school renewal contracts. They refused to remove the language after requesting them to remove it."
Ellison continued: "Furthermore, the Department of Education should not place unjust demands on individuals and education leaders. For religious purposes, and religious freedom, I will not sign off on this policy."
Then in 2013, during a heated exchange between OPSB members over an anti-bullying policy that would have affected five schools then run directly by the board, Ellison again opposed language that detailed who deserved protection against discrimination.
In that instance, the board was discussing whether to approve a policy that said students are entitled to a safe learning environment regardless of characteristics that might trigger attacks. The policy included a list of such characteristics, naming race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation.
According to a story in The Times-Picayune, when Ellison expressed opposition to listing the traits, board member Seth Bloom, who is gay, protested, saying he found it "perplexing" that "certain minorities seek protection for certain minorities but not for others."
Ellison, who is black, then responded, "This has nothing to do with being black. I can't change my blackness at all," according to the article.
Nhan Truong, a senior research associate at GLSEN — formerly the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network — pointed to a recent survey that included several hundred LGBTQ students in Louisiana. In the survey, 79 percent of those students reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 19 percent reported being physically assaulted.
"This data makes clear that we need supportive educators, administrators and school board members to address the safety, acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ students," Truong said.
In a statement, Usdin said she could not vote for Ellison for president because she could not support any candidate who has "actively fought" against LGBTQ-friendly policies.
"As a School Board member, my most sacred duty is to protect the children in our schools from harm, and we know that young people who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender are among the most vulnerable of our students to bullying and even physical attacks," Usdin said. "Same-sex couples, whether parents or our students or members of our staff, also deserve our affirmation and respect, as well as full legal rights and protections."
Marshall, however, said that he could vote for anyone who understands that the president represents the views of the board, and he thinks Ellison does.
"I believe both candidates understand that as a president they lose the right to speak as an individual," Marshall said. "As long as she can abide by that, I think she would serve well as president. If she does not, I think it would be incumbent on the board to remove her."
Marshall further urged the public to "not get involved" in the selection of a board president, saying that the leadership decision has historically been handled "internally."
"We are at the point now where we can really put a footprint on education in this district. The most important thing is to come together and form consensus about what we need to do for the children," Marshall said. "I would hate for politics to get involved with it."
Ellison responded by saying she voted to support student-centered and classroom-sensitive policies regarding on-campus cooperation with law enforcement. She also said she approached and voted for Bloom about running for OPSB president “when she saw his leadership potential.”
“My purpose, focus and commitment are unwavering," Ellison said. "I will continue to put all children first, and I am grateful to have the confidence and trust of my community and colleagues as I fulfill my duty in office."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement by OPSB member and candidate Leslie Ellison.