With a vote for the next president of the Orleans Parish School Board expected Thursday, activist groups and some former district officials have been seeking to coalesce opposition to the candidacy of board member Leslie Ellison over her past statements and positions on issues involving LGBTQ rights.
Mary Griggs, secretary for the Forum for Equality Louisiana, said she and other groups representing gay and transgender people, including PFLAG and Louisiana Trans Advocates, met privately with School Board members on Tuesday in attempts to sway their votes against Ellison.
The groups highlighted Ellison's past opposition to protections for LGBTQ students, a position Ellison said she took in the name of religious freedom, and said they would be appearing before the OPSB at Thursday's meeting to protest her quest for the board presidency.
In the meantime, Ellison and the other declared candidate for president, Woody Koppel, each released statements touting their past years of service on the board and qualifications for the position. Ellison did not directly address her earlier statements or say whether her views on gay rights have evolved since.
"The board hasn’t voted, and the issues referenced are not before the board," Ellison's spokeswoman, Nayita Wilson, said when asked about Ellison's present views. "There is no contention."
The likely outcome of the vote remained unclear Wednesday. Most board members, for the second day in a row, either didn't return calls seeking comment or declined to say how they would vote.
Board member Sarah Usdin said Tuesday that she will not support Ellison and instead plans to vote for Koppel. Member Nolan Marshall said he thought either Ellison or Koppel would be a worthy president.
Controversy over the upcoming vote first erupted earlier in the week, when education activist and blogger Peter Cook shared a video of Ellison testifying at the state Capitol in 2012 in support of a bill that would have let charter schools exclude LGBTQ students. She said that requiring them to accept such students could infringe on their freedom of religion.
At the time, Ellison was head of a charter school and was opposing a charter contract with an anti-discrimination clause she said violated the doctrines of separation of powers and freedom of religion. She was elected to the School Board that year. She now works as an administrator at Gideon Christian Fellowship International, a nondenominational church.
She represents the board's 4th District, which includes Marigny, Bywater, Algiers and parts of the French Quarter. In the past two years, she was unanimously elected board vice president, as she underscored in a statement to The New Orleans Advocate.
If elected president, she would replace John Brown, who has served in that role for the past two years.
Although the OPSB has been known to have divided votes over such issues before, the board had remained unified in recent years when voting for president. The role is largely ceremonial, but it does come with certain powers, such as setting meeting agendas, signing contracts and assigning members to committees.
Griggs, the Forum for Equality official, along with some former district officials and a past board member, said granting Ellison such powers is worrisome to LGBTQ activists.
"We understand the roles various people play on boards, so we did not come out in force when she was elected vice president," Griggs said. "But our concern right now is someone in leadership in a city like New Orleans should not have anti-LGBTQ views."
Griggs also noted that that Ellison did not "walk back and apologize" for the views she has expressed in the past.
On Wednesday, Forum for Equality began a letter-writing campaign under the slogan "ANYONE but Ellison," prompting more than 50 people to write letters to School Board members.
In a statement, the group said that Ellison's case was not one of "a public official 'evolving' on our issues after bigoted remarks in the past."
Thomas Robichaux, a former OPSB member and board president who is openly gay, said a vote for Ellison would "harm" LGBTQ students.
"When I was president of the OPSB, we worked very hard to put in protections for LGBTQ students and staff in our anti-bullying policies and non-discrimination policies. ... Leslie Ellison has already tried repeatedly to remove those policies," Robichaux said. "It is shocking to me that some board members that claim to be progressives or liberals are OK with Leslie Ellison’s position on these issues."
The statement Ellison released Wednesday noted that she had nominated Seth Bloom — another openly gay former OPSB member — for the board presidency and voted for him twice.
Bloom said Wednesday that he and Ellison had an "excellent working relationship," but he noted they had "opposite views" over certain "social issues." Those views, he said, should disqualify her from being board president.
"I think the OPSB president should represent the wonderful diverse culture of New Orleans, and I don’t believe Leslie symbolizes or represent the values of our school system and our city," Bloom said.
Bloom said he would urge board members to support Koppel, who touted his work "rooting out corruption" and making the district more efficient to get through financial problems.
"I'm the longest-serving School Board member right now," Koppel said. "My public record is consistent: I've always put the district first, and I've dealt fairly with everyone."
In response to the pushback over some of her views, Ellison sought Wednesday to focus attention instead on her accomplishments on the board, including her support for policy measures to direct more finances to classrooms.
She also said she pushed to renew millages that provide $38 million a year for books, supplies, drop-out prevention and salaries, and that she approved charter renewals for various high-performing schools.
“My purpose, focus and commitment are unwavering," Ellison said. "I will continue to put all children first."