Parents shouted protests and some were escorted away from the podium, spewing scorn at school leaders. On the dais, members of the Orleans Parish School Board begged for order.

The scene at last week's school board meeting, which would end with the impending loss of five charter schools, seemed a throwback to pre-Hurricane Katrina days, when the board last reigned over New Orleans public schools and meetings often featured chaotic battles over the city's failing education system.

Much has happened in the 14 years since the OPSB was last at the helm: the discord following the storm, the move to a mostly-charter system, and halting improvements to student achievement that nevertheless have left New Orleans children far behind peers across the U.S.

But one thing hasn't seemed to change: despite Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.'s repeated messages of unity, the community remains deeply divided about how the city's collection of more than 70 public schools should be run.

Ken Ducote, who worked for OPSB for 34 years as a teacher, school administrator and planning director, said one phrase community organizers kept repeating Thursday -- "erase the board" -- had been borrowed the from meetings in the 1990s, when meetings had also been focused on school closures.

"That kind of topic is just going to bring out big crowds," Ducote said. "It's an emotional thing."

And arguments between supporters of the charter movement and those wanting to return to a more traditional public schools system are again being waged.

The immediate topic at hand at Thursday's meeting was Lewis' announcement that he would be closing five schools at the end of the year, igniting protests from parents who argued that such decisions fracture communities, harm student morale and displace worthy teachers.

But even more telling was the underlying message for Lewis, whose district mostly authorizes schools rather than operates them day-to-day: Many parents don't like the new OPSB at all.

"It is evident to me that families and students of New Orleans are not even getting a basic level of representation from elected school board members," said Lamont Douglas, a parent at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School and education advocate, as he addressed the board last week.

Douglas has previously blogged about his discontent with the state of schools in post-Katrina New Orleans. He has complained about an enrollment process that's "confusing," and has bemoaned decisions to replace "veteran teachers" with "a younger, less-experienced, less-costly educator pool."

Lewis began Thursday's meeting by confirming what district officials had already hinted: Cypress Academy, Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, McDonogh 32 Elementary School, Medard Nelson Charter School and William Fischer Elementary School would all close at the end of the school year.

Under OPSB rules, Lewis' recommendations stand unless the board overrides him with a two-thirds vote. If that doesn't happen by next year, the decision is final — meaning parents often find out about the closures just months before they happen, giving them limited opportunity to weigh in on the decisions.

The process is part of a charter-friendly system that Lewis has said is key to accountability, as it allows schools to expand or open new campuses if they are meeting state-enforced standards, and to be shut down if they are failing.

But even as the approach has supporters, many parents say they would rather have a traditional board overseeing traditional schools — an indication that they're likely to be disappointed for years to come as the OPSB moves closer and closer to becoming an all-charter district.

"They are operating in line with what they said they were going to do," said Nahliah Webber, the executive director of the advocacy organization Orleans Public Education Network. "The problem is, that’s not what a lot of parents want."

As Lewis announced the closings, he underscored that several of the schools are failing academically and others were buckling for financial or governance-related reasons.

And he chose to close them rather than replace their charter operators, he said, because several nearby options were higher-performing. To that end, he promised that families of children at the closed schools would receive priority in OneApp, the city's centralized enrollment system, in finding new schools.

The decision, while difficult, moves him closer to his goal of reducing the number of failing schools, he said.

"This month has been a test for myself, my staff, this board and of the system as a whole — a test of our courage, our consistency and a test of humility," Lewis said. "As a public servant and leader, the test I face is whether I will make tough choices when the information is presented to me."

However, at the meeting some parents asked for a different option. They want Lewis to close the charters if the school is performing poorly, as required under state law. But they want the parish school district to run the schools directly to give them another shot at improvement.

They also asked the district to better include parents in decision-making, provide schools with more financial support and create more in-depth evaluation processes

Several times during the meeting, the attendees broke into chants of "erase the board" and "take back our schools."

"We are creating another generation of prisoners and housekeepers, and y’all are fine with that. But you work for us, not the charters," said McDonogh 35 alumna Armtrice Cowart. "You around here passing around charters like you Oprah or something: Look under your seat, you get a school, you get a school, you get a school."

The OPSB has had oversight of most public schools in New Orleans since the summer, when the schools previously overseen by the state-run Recovery School District were transferred under the locally elected board.

The last time a locally elected board was in charge of all local public schools was before July 2004, when the first New Orleans public school was transferred to the newly formed RSD and subsequently converted into a charter.

But prior to the OPSB regaining control, most of the New Orleans public schools had become charter schools, which are public schools governed by mostly autonomous nonprofit boards.

While addressing parents during his superintendent's report, Lewis underscored that, as a whole, public education has come a long way since 2004, when the local district consistently came in last or second-to-last in state rankings.

Members of New Schools for New Orleans, a pro-charter nonprofit organization, have backed Lewis' claims. In a 2015 report, the organization said the charter movement helped usher in successes not seen in the city's schools for decades.

More recently, the nonprofit analyzed data from 87 locally and state-authorized schools in New Orleans, 98 percent of which are charters, and found "numbers to celebrate."

Of the approximately 49,000 students who attended public schools in New Orleans in 2017, 73 percent graduated, up from 54 percent in 2014. 

Moreover, 11 percent of New Orleans students attended Lousiana's lowest-performing schools last year. In 2005, 62 percent were in those schools.

However, Lewis' critics shot back with numbers of their own.

Bouie underscored that 41 percent of public schools in Orleans Parish got Ds and Fs under the latest state ratings.

He argued that with so many failing schools, there aren't enough good options to go around when the OPSB shutters under-performing charters. The result, he said, is that children's lives get disrupted only to be shuffled into another poorly performing school.

"We've got to stop doing to our children what we are doing," Bouie said. "After tonight, please do not charter or close another school. If you’ve got a problem with administration, run the school; don’t close the school.”

Other critics have said closing can be especially jarring because many of the schools have long histories.

McDonogh 32, for example, was founded as one of the city's first schools for African-American children and was among the first schools to reopen its doors following Katrina.

Harney, originally named Willow Street School, was built in 1923. Nelson was one of the city's first state-authorized charter schools, and Fischer describes itself as "a historic neighborhood school."

Whatever happens with the five schools, Webber said she expects parents to remain "amplified."

"Parents feel blindsided," she said.


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.