A plan to unify most New Orleans public schools under the Orleans Parish School Board’s umbrella is swiftly taking shape, and a new state law mandating that move has clear provisions to protect charter schools' autonomy from interference by the board after they come under its purview.
Yet many people in New Orleans education circles remain nervous about one key variable: the School Board itself.
Qualifying for the board's seven seats starts Wednesday, and lots of eyes will be on the hats tossed in the ring for the Nov. 8 elections.
While the law requiring Recovery School District schools’ return to the OPSB by 2018 or 2019 includes safeguards against board meddling - notably, it requires a two-thirds board majority to overturn key decisions by the superintendent - backers of charter schools say it remains critical to elect candidates who support those reforms.
And, as has repeatedly been the case in the years since Hurricane Katrina and the state's takeover of most New Orleans schools, folks less keen on the changes see this fall’s elections as a chance to right a ship they say has veered off course.
All of this comes as schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and dozens of education leaders work to hash out the finer points of the RSD schools’ return.
A draft plan released last week for the first time outlined the expected cost of the two school systems' reunification - $28 million - and urged the board to iron out key details by the end of this year. Lewis, meanwhile, has begun to restructure his cabinet in preparation for new schools, adding two deputies and removing another who is angling for a position elsewhere.
Though they can’t officially sign up until Wednesday, at least two board members have said they plan to qualify to defend their seats. Board President Seth Bloom and member Leslie Ellison both touted their track records and experience.
Although he couldn’t be reached to confirm it Friday, insiders say New Orleans College Prep founder and President Ben Kleban also will be a candidate. A frequent attendee at School Board meetings who has turned a critical eye on the OPSB’s central office, Kleban will likely step away from his job to challenge Bloom in a bid to represent the district comprising much of Uptown and the Warehouse District, board watchers say.
A recent change at College Prep lends credence to that claim: Once the sole CEO of his four-school group, Kleban has passed the mantle to two deputies who share “co-CEO” titles.
If he does run, it could soothe many charter school leaders’ fears that a return to the OPSB might mean a return to the corruption and mismanagement that mired that board before Katrina.
Bloom, an attorney who is seen as pro-reform but who critics say spent years in the background, making few waves, before becoming board president, said he’s spoken with Kleban about his potential challenge.
“He’s specifically told me that this is not a referendum against me, and he thought that I’ve done a good job,” Bloom said.
Bloom also said he didn’t think “seven experts on a board” is what the OPSB needs - a response to those who might prefer Kleban’s background in education over Bloom’s legal career.
Although Cynthia Cade, the board’s longest-serving member and once an ally of former board president and firebrand Ira Thomas - who is serving a one-year prison sentence for accepting a bribe - did not return a call about a potential re-election bid, she will have at least one challenger if she does run: Eric Jones, an L.B. Landry High School graduate and former president of a group that once hoped to manage that school.
Though Jones has strong ties in Algiers, he's registered to vote in New Orleans East.
“At the end of the day for me, it’s about doing what’s right for children,” said Jones, who has loudly called for reunification under the OPSB and criticized the RSD’s approach.
Another name often mentioned as a challenger to Cade is Ethan Ashley, an official with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. Ashley's election would be considered another gain for reformers; he did not return a call for comment Friday.
One question is whether the national teachers union will cut a huge check for its preferred candidates, as it did in Jefferson Parish two years ago. That appears to be unlikely in a city where the union’s tack has been to organize and bargain at the individual school level, where most control lies.
An American Federation of Teachers spokeswoman - who spoke enthusiastically in 2014 about the $20 million the AFT dedicated that year to state and local races across the country - referred the question to local union leaders. United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter and AFT rep Audra George did not return calls for comment.
For four years, local business interests have enjoyed majority representation on the Jeffers…
The reform side has big money of its own, in any case. Education Reform Now - a nonprofit tied to Democrats for Education Reform that poured almost $1 million into state school board races last year - is also staking out its ground in this election, last week launching a multimedia campaign touting charter school progress over the past decade.
“The upcoming school board elections are critical to preserving the gains we have made, starting with school choice,” a handout from that campaign reads.
Meanwhile, Lewis, the superintendent, and a team of school leaders continue to draw up the plan that will be used to guide unification over the next three years. The plan will go to the current School Board by Sept. 1.
Lewis has removed second-in-command Michelle Blouin-Williams, who is seeking a job with the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, from his cabinet and has appointed Colleston Morgan Jr. as chief strategy officer and Nicolette London as overseer of “network” schools - schools that aren’t charters but that have been fashioned to mirror them.
The newcomers join current Chief Portfolio Officer Mary Garton and Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith in the cabinet.
Those changes are effective this month.
Michelle Blouin-Williams, who has been serving as second-in-command to the superintendent of…
Editor's note, July 18, 2016: This story has been corrected to note Eric Jones' registered voting district. It is in New Orleans East, not Algiers. Therefore, he would be running against Cynthia Cade, not Leslie Ellison.