By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

In preparation for what is undoubtedly the race to watch in the Oct. 22 elections for those interested in public education, District 1 and 2 candidates for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday addressed the toughest questions facing the New Orleans educational scene.

District 1 in New Orleans includes Lakeview, Lakeshore, Mid-City, and parts of Uptown. District 2 includes Treme, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly, Algiers and parts of Uptown.

The forum was presented by a coalition of 22 organizations with educational interests, including the Louisiana Public Association of Charter Schools and the Orleans Public Education Network. The six candidates at Dillard University Wednesday answered questions on the merits of charter schools, the hiring of Teach For America recruits in place of veteran teachers, and shortcomings in services for special-needs students.

District 2 candidate Pamela Matus, right, was seated with District 1 candidates Lee Barrios and James Garvey. Photo by Jessica Williams

District 1 incumbent James Garvey was true to his voting record Wednesday, citing his support for the charter-school movement, school choice, and current BESE policy in nearly every answer he gave. Conversely, newcomer and retired St. Tammany Parish teacher Lee Barrios argued for changing BESE policies and questioned charter school autonomy. She said problems lay in lack of oversight.

In the District 2 race, the audience closely listened to the answers from Teach For America New Orleans Director Kira Orange Jones and incumbent Louella Givens, who is a lawyer and former educator. Also in the race are Baptist pastor Ferdinand Wallace and former Laplace teacher Pamela Matus, who expressed overall disdain for BESE policy and current educational efforts.

Orange Jones cited her experience in the trenches, drew on her background as an educator for 11 years and referred to her personal experience growing up in a single-parent household with her mother, a 20-year veteran educator.

“I saw how she fought to ­provide better opportunities for me when the schools in my own community were failing,” Orange Jones said. “She worked hard to put me in better schools.”

Givens stood on her record.

“Over the last eight years I’ve worked on and authored 56 different education bills, designed to promote equity and clarity across the educational spectrum,” she said.

Givens’ praise for the charter-school movement likely surprised those who assumed she was squarely in the anti-charter camp. When asked what effect the high rate of students in charter schools has had on families, she said charters give parents hope where there once was none.

“The advent of charter schools in New Orleans is that it has opened a new light for parents,” Givens said. “We’ve been trapped in a cycle of failure and low expectations for so very long, that we have started to believe that our children and our schools really just couldn’t do better. But now we’ve had a chance to experience success with a new educational model.”

Candidates for Distrct 2 kept the attention of the audience Wednesday night. Photo by Jessica Williams

Orange Jones shot Givens a quick retort.

“The charter-school movement is working here. I’m encouraged to hear the incumbent support that. Your record has not been supportive of the highest performing charters in this room,” she said, acknowledging the considerable number of charter school board members in the audience.

District 1 also offered some back biting for the audience’s listening pleasure, most notably from Barrios, who separated herself from Garvey.

“Reform comes in many flavors, and I’m challenging Mr. Garvey because his flavor flunks the taste test,” she said in her introductory statement. Barrios later accused Garvey of supporting intrusion on local control of schools by state and federal level outsiders, an allegation Garvey denied.

It’s unclear whether this will be the candidates’ last chance to come together in a public forum to debate the issues. Sponsoring organizations at Wednesday’s event did not advertise an encore.

Below is an edited, paraphrased summary of a few questions and candidate responses.

Q: The current BESE policy allows RSD direct-run schools to choose whether to return to the Orleans Parish School Board if they reach performance goals – something no direct-run RSD school has achieved. Should these schools remain under RSD control or should they be allowed to go back? What governance system do you think is best?

  • Lee Barrios – Said schools should go back to OPSB. Said state isn’t capable of continuing to directly run that many schools.
  • James Garvey – Said local control is preferable, but charters have shown tremendous results. Current system of chartering out schools is designed to do that. A school needs to decide whether it’s ready to return, and these decisions are best made at the level closest to students and teachers, not by a central office. Governance system shouldn’t be biased against charter schools.
  • Kira Orange Jones – Agreed with current policy of letting schools choose.
  • Louella Givens – Current model has some ambiguities that we need to straighten out before we can make a decision.
  • Pamela Matus – Said schools should go back to OPSB.
  • Ferdinand Wallace, Jr. – Said schools should go back to control by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Q: The appointment of the state superintendent is one of the most important decisions that the new BESE will make. What do you feel are the most important qualifications for the job?

  • Barrios – Needs to have the same minimum requirements as local superintendents.
  • Garvey – Needs to support the reforms we have in place. Needs to support school choice. Needs to support the RSD and the charters.
  • Matus – Needs to be involved in the community and have high expectations for children.
  • Orange Jones – Needs experience managing complex organizations. Needs to support the reforms that have been going on across this city. Needs to engage broad spectrum of stakeholders.
  • Wallace – Needs to be well-qualified and meet same requirements as local superintendents.
  • Givens – Needs to be able to galvanize the districts and gain the support and respect of the educational community.

Q: How well are special needs being met in New Orleans? Are there inequities, and how would you propose to rectify them?

  • Wallace – There are inequalities. Safe environments need to be present in every school for everyone.
  • Givens – Needs to be made clearer to all groups that educating students with special needs is a legal requirement. Stop looking at it as an us vs. them problem.
  • Barrios – Parents have had problems getting kids in and having kids pushed out of schools. It’s definitely a problem.
  • Garvey – When BESE investigated schools with unusually low percentages of special needs students, it found that schools themselves have been very cooperative with that population. The problem lies in inaccurate labeling – kids who are special needs are not classified as such. The schools have been servicing those students.
  • Orange Jones – Data supports that schools have done a great job of servicing special needs students. Arthur Ashe Charter has made gains. The overwhelming majority of schools are working very hard.
  • Matus – There are laws on the books for special-ed students. This should not have turned into a problem. The defragmentation of the public school system has contributed to this. You have to provide special-ed kids with those services. They deserve the right to a quality education just like other students.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...