Qualifying begins today for candidates seeking seats on the Orleans Parish School Board.  At issue are basic questions of governance including whether schools that now answer to the state’s Recovery School District will be returned to local control, making this one of the more pivotal elections in recent memory.

Six of the board’s seven incumbents have announced bids for re-election and the seventh may do so as well. Two high-profile non-incumbents have entered the race, both of them active in the charter school movement, and other candidates are expected to file before Friday’s deadline. The Nov. 6 primary election coincides with the nation’s presidential contest, assuring a larger than normal turnout. Runoff elections, if required, will be held on Saturday, Dec. 8.

Incumbents seeking re-election have largely like-minded views on the board’s proper role in the administration of charter schools: that it should serve as a resource manager and policy guide, but not interfere with day-to-day management. And all of them claim that progress has been made in overcoming the board’s years-old reputation for financial mismanagement, dismal academic performance, and chaotic public meetings.

They say that this justifies ending the post-Katrina era that began with state takeover of the vast majority of the district’s failing schools; but whether schools now run by the Recovery School District will opt for School Board governance remains an open question.

Critics of the board fear that it will meddle with charter schools, eroding their autonomy and the schoolhouse-level management that has allowed for curricular innovation and less burdensome bureaucracy.

As proof of improved performance, the board can point to the federal government’s recent decision to lift the “high-risk” label that had been slapped on the board’s financial practices. The designation, removed earlier this year, reflected the system’s brush with bankruptcy shortly before Katrina and the discovery that $75 million in federal grants could not be accounted for. Coupled with the financial upgrade, the district’s bond rating is now a strong Aa+.

In addition, the district’s academic performance has continued to improve. Stripped of responsibility for failing schools, which are administered by the Recovery School District, it can claim the state’s highest graduation rate and the second-highest academic performance rank.

Sitting board members vow to continue the board’s overhaul and to respect the independence of charter schools already administered by the board or those that may choose to leave Recovery School District control in the future.

But the board’s overarching consensus on many issues has not precluded internal rifts and schisms. Members Cynthia Cade and Ira Thomas, sometimes joined by Brett Bonin, comprise a faction that accuses the board’s white majority – Thomas Robichaux, Lourdes Moran, Seth Bloom and Woody Koppel — of  ignoring their input and making decisions along racial lines.  A particular flashpoint: the minority faction favors granting approval to more community groups  seeking charters to start or take over schools. The intensity with which some of these squabbles have flared up is what leaves critics wondering if the board will ever get beyond personality clashes, let alone develop the capacity to govern more schools.

The desire to ensure that the board moves towards a new governance model spurred two challengers to enter the race before qualifying began. One is New Schools For New Orleans founder Sarah Usdin, who is running against Bonin. The other announced challenger is Milestone SABIS Academy board president Leslie Ellison, who’s looking to unseat Moran. Usdin, who was state director of Teach for America before founding New Schools for New Orleans, may stir opposition among veteran teachers critical of Teach for America’s reliance on young, minimally trained instructors. Ellison could take fire for her outspoken stance in support of a stalled Senate bill that some critics say could bar gay children from charter schools.

The Lens will post a complete roster of candidates after qualifying ends on Friday.

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...