The close of qualifying Friday for the Nov. 8 elections awarded two Orleans Parish School Board incumbents outright victories in an election seen as crucial as the board prepares to reclaim its former role as overseer of most of New Orleans' public schools.

No one signed up to challenge John Brown, who will continue to represent much of New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, or Sarah Usdin, who represents all of Lakeview and parts of Mid-City and Gentilly.

The pair of automatic wins -- the first time in two decades that multiple School Board races drew just one candidate -- seemed to show a waning interest in the board in two districts that typically attract enthusiastic politicos, though the number of people signing up in other races suggested the shift is not citywide.

Observers suggested the lack of challengers could mean residents in districts 1 and 3 are satisfied with the status quo as most schools that have been under the state-run Recovery School District since right after Hurricane Katrina prepare to return to local control.

Other possible explanations are that potential candidates might have decided the job is too tough or that they had no shot in some races, or perhaps that many New Orleanians just are unconcerned these days about the governance aspect of education. 

“Serving as an elected school board member is an unpaid, hard job,” said Leslie Jacobs, an influential education leader who has served on both the city and state school boards.

The last time more than one School Board race in Orleans Parish was uncontested was in 1996, the year Jacobs resigned from the local board and was appointed to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Jacobs and three other new faces had run on a reform ticket in 1992 -- and four years later, reformers Maudelle Cade, J. Berengher Brechtel and Carolyn Green Ford won outright with no opponents. 

Two other candidates -- newcomer Scott Shea and Cheryl Cramer, an incumbent who had been appointed a few months before that election -- also ran unopposed in 1996, for a total of five automatic wins that board members then touted as a sign they'd done their jobs well.

Another explanation for the lack of opponents this time might be that people like Brown's and Usdin's work, Jacobs said. 

But Karran Harper Royal, an education activist who ran against Usdin and lost in 2012, said critics of Usdin, at least, might have been scared off by her fundraising muscle. Along with Jacobs, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and former Time magazine editor and author Walter Isaacson were among a lengthy list of contributors to Usdin’s unprecedented $150,000 campaign haul four years ago. 

Royal raised close to $13,000.

“Those folks who were in power, the charter school movement, they have lined their ducks up in a row,” said Royal, who has been critical of charters. “For the everyday person, that’s an insurmountable hill to climb, particularly because of the amount of money in the race.”

Royal pointed to  Ben Kleban, a former charter school CEO who is running in the board's District 5 race and who has netted dozens of endorsements from political and education leaders.

Ethan Ashley, an Urban League of Greater New Orleans official who hopes to unseat Cynthia Cade in District 2, also is likely to get big support from charter proponents. 

Pete Cook, a local education consultant, said uncontested elections, in any case, are "not necessarily a sign of good civic health."

The lack of candidates in some races made him wonder if education insiders who fought for years to have schools returned to local control are simply glad to see it happen and are less inclined to fight over the board seats.

"I think by and large people are not looking for many changes in the way things are happening," Cook said, adding that many parents are more focused on teaching and learning than on governance.

Brown, whose appointment in March 2015 to imprisoned former board member Ira Thomas’ seat was extended by voters in November, said he’s happy to avoid another campaign, regardless of the reason for it. 

“I hope that they think that I did a good job during the time that I’ve served,” he said of voters.

In a Facebook post about her election, Usdin said she’s “proud and eager to finish the work that needs to be done for our schools.”


Victors in the five remaining races will be decided by voters in November or, if runoffs are needed, December.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.