Thomas Robichaux, 43, a former city attorney who now works as a lawyer for a gaming distribution company, ran in 2008 as a reform candidate for a seat on the Orleans Parish School Board and today is its president. Few dispute that change was sorely needed. For years the city school system had been synonymous with financial mismanagement and atrocious academic performance. The system had gone bankrupt shortly before Katrina and probes had been set in motion that eventually would send a former school board president to jail and determine that $75 million in federal support had been misappropriated. Within weeks of the storm, the system’s failing schools – the overwhelming majority of the 100-plus schools that OPSB had governed – were swept into the state’s Recovery School District, leaving the OPSB to manage the handful that were deemed still functional. Reeling and rudderless, the OPSB fired virtually its entire teaching staff, effectively canceling its contract with their union, the United Teachers of New Orleans. Several of the schools still under its purview rushed to establish themselves as charter schools.
Today, the school board presides over 11 charters and six traditional schools. The rest of the city’s schools – 71 in number – are under the state’s Recovery School District or its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, most of them charters, plus a residual few that the RSD is running directly. Amid contentious debate over how best to restore the city’s bifurcated school system to local control, in December 2010, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a procedure whereby improving schools can opt to return to the OPSB fold either as charters or as direct-run schools. But to date, none of the eight schools eligible for this option have chosen to do so. The reasons why were among questions we brought to a conversation with Robichaux, who was elected OPSB president in January.
The Lens: Why did you get into the public education sphere in the first place? What inspired you to run in 2008?
Robichaux: Well, I had been preaching for years that education is the key. And it turned out that no one was running. So Woody (Koppel) called me and said, “Thomas, nobody is running in your district.” I’m like,”Ok.” So I decided I needed to put my money where my mouth was. I borrowed the $200 and I went and qualified. I had one opponent at the last minute, but then he didn’t live in the district, so I sued and got him out. And I ended up getting elected unopposed.
I’ve seen how the lack of education has been a detriment to the city and its progress. And that’s all true. But the reality is that during Katrina we all saw the news footage the day of, before the levees broke, all the looting. That’s 50 years of bad education. I was so embarrassed to watch my fellow citizens behaving so horribly. Police too!
For years, people have lived in isolation. And the rich white man on St. Charles Avenue didn’t care about the poor black kid in New Orleans East getting shot, or dealing drugs. Katrina showed us, if nothing else, that we are all in this boat together — that the kid who’s dealing drugs and getting no education in the Lower Nine does affect the guy on St. Charles Avenue, and if we don’t work together to improve the city then we’re working against each other. Education is the single key to it. It’s the key to poverty, the key to crime, it’s the key to racism, sexism, homophobia, it’s the key to all of it. Unless we fix a broken system, we’re neglecting ourselves.
The Lens: When you got on the board what did you see as the future of the Orleans Parish School Board, the burgeoning charter school movement and so forth?
Robichaux: I saw it about where we are. But I’d hoped to be getting some schools back by now. I really did. We’re working hard to make that happen this fall.
The Lens: What do you think some of the barriers are for that? Why do you think schools are wary about coming back under OPSB management?
Robichaux: Well, I could tell you that political pressure was brought to bear on the eight schools (that were eligible to return). That’s what we hear, that’s what we’re told. And there’s some trepidation on their part as well because we don’t have a comprehensive plan for the return. We have a general plan, but we don’t have a comprehensive plan. There’s a lot of nuanced, nitpicky details. And since we didn’t have that detailed plan, they were just hesitant to do it. And I don’t blame them. So we’re actually working that out right now. Kathleen Padian is the new executive director of charter schools; she’s been working on that plan since she started.
The Lens: When do you think that plan will be complete?
Robichaux: Very soon. By the end of next month.
The Lens: Besides the lack of a concrete plan, are there other reasons why they have resisted coming back?
Robichaux: The Pastorek plan calls for them to have a vote, and it’s their boards that vote. Now originally, when he described the plan in public — at the meeting when the BESE board voted (on it), he said that the school communities would get to vote. Meaning the parents, the neighborhood, and the board and all that stuff. But that was not the case. It’s just their boards. Some of those boards have multiple schools in the Recovery School District, and they have political ties and financial ties, and they don’t want to burn those bridges.
The Lens: Describe the reasoning behind the proposed changes in board governance.
Robichaux: Even though we’ve gone through all these reforms, until we put them into policy, they are not permanent. And that’s our goal this year. Our job is not just to be a good board now, but to set up future boards for success. And part of that is this governance model that we put forward. It doesn’t really substantively change much internally. At the committee meetings, the director of charter schools comes to the accountability committee. The director of finance comes to the finance committees. And we give them directives, through the board and through those committees. So we’re not changing that at all. The only thing we’re doing is separating out the traditional (direct-run) schools and the central services, so that the superintendent will be able to focus on his true mission, which is traditional schools. And then the CFO, who would be the deputy superintendent for finance and operations, would handle all the central services. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff that we provide for our charters and also for private schools that we have to provide, because of federal regulations. So we have to provide those services for all schools, and all those central services would be under operations. And then, charter schools would be under the deputy superintendent for charter schools, and traditional schools under the superintendent of schools.
The Lens: So, would the deputy superintendent of charter schools be subordinate to the superintendent or an equal?
Robichaux: (Motions with his hands, indicating that deputy superintendents are just below the superintendent.) All three report to the board, but that’s one of the debates. Should there ultimately be one person, and if there is one person, at what point does that person get involved with the decisions of the deputy? How much freedom does the deputy have officially? For instance, if the deputy of finance wants to do a certain project, does he have to wait for the superintendent to come to work to get approval for it? And so, it’s about efficiency and it’s about the specialists in that area being in charge of that area. And then, the counterargument is that you need one person in charge, where the buck stops. But, ultimately the buck stops with the board.
The Lens: Now that Superintendent Darryl Kilbert will be stepping down in June, what qualities will the board be looking for in his replacement?
Robichaux: We certainly are going to look for an experienced administrator, someone who is innovative and can take us to the next level. We’re the No. 1 district in the state, but want to be a nationally ranked district.
The Lens: Do you have anyone in mind right now?
The Lens: What is your response to folks who say that the era of local board control, specifically in New Orleans, is coming to an end?
Robichaux: I would say that the traditional model is certainly gone. There’s no movement to bring it back. The traditional model is no longer sufficient, because we neglected it. It’s outdated, and not sufficient for modern society and modern educational needs. But that does not mean the board should be eliminated by any means.
What I’ve discovered is that there can be no true accountability to the people without an elected board. Appointed board members are only beholden to their appointer. They are not beholden to the people. They are not responsive to the people. Even through the corruption of (convicted former board president) Ellenese Brooks-Simms, and all that, the democratic process worked. She was voted out of office before she was indicted. And that’s rare. (New Orleans City) Council people weren’t voted out of office before they were indicted. They were indicted, and then they had to resign. So the democratic process worked for the school board. It’s just because council people are known as individuals, and board members are known as board members, that the board gets branded, rather than the council. There’s been a lot more people in City Hall to go to jail than school board people. But the school board has this burden that the council doesn’t seem to have.
Anyway, back to the model. The American educational model was designed after World War II to create classes of people. It was designed to create a labor class, and a skilled clerical class, and an elite professional class. That model worked fine, for the 20th century. Then we got desegregation, and the whites fled. Especially in the South. And not only did they flee the schools with their kids, they started ignoring the schools. Because their kids didn’t go there, so they didn’t care about public education any more. Then, we learned the lesson, finally, that we’re all in this together. And we have to pay attention.
So the model, when you neglect the system … it’s going to fail. [With] any system, you’re going to always have to be feeding it some energy. You have to always be getting new blood and new ideas, and new people. And that was not done for 50 years here. So, the system produced exactly the results that we should have expected it to produce, considering, one, the model, and, two, the neglect that we gave it. So, now we are trying to break that cycle, and reverse 50 years of neglect. We’ve done it on the fiscal side, and we’re really succeeding on the academic side. So now it’s about making it as permanent as possible and designing the system for the next 50 years.
The Lens: What do you think about the school voucher program that Governor Jindal got the Legislature to enact?
Robichaux: Here’s my stance on vouchers. I think that they are a small Band-Aid on a large gaping wound. I don’t think that public money should be going to private schools, but on the other hand, if it’s the only way that a child can get a better education, then I think that overrides my constitutional objections. But again, it has to be monitored so closely and there has to be conditions on it, because there is a constitutional question about separation of church and state. I am not opposed to the program in principle, if it is to educate children who would not otherwise be able to receive quality education.
The Lens: Elections are coming up in November. What do you want folks to take away from this board’s term?
Robichaux: I never in my lifetime thought that the Orleans Parish School Board would be the No. 1 district in the state.* And that’s the situation we have. I want people to realize that four years ago we came into office and promised that Orleans Parish School Board would be the No. 1 district in the state, and we’ve succeeded. There’s going to be a lot of controversial things this year, because we’re going to be putting everything into policy. And we need the public’s support to make permanent these great reforms that we’ve put through.
*Note: Robichaux is referring to the Orleans Parish School Board’s 2011 cohort graduation rate of 93.5 percent, the highest rate in the state. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, the district has a district performance score of 118, or No. 2 statewide. The Zachary Community School District had the highest statewide district performance score, at 121.