Orleans Parish School Board chooses outspoken leaders

With much fanfare, the newly elected Orleans Parish School Board took office and made some surprising selections for president and vice president Monday morning.

Board members unanimously chose incumbent member Ira Thomas, Southern University at New Orleans police chief, for the head seat, and first-timer Leslie Ellison, an education consultant and former charter school board member, as vice president.

Their selection shows, if nothing else, that this board isn’t shying away from controversial choices. Thomas, 55, has gained a reputation on the board over the past year for being combative and confrontational, both with other board members and with the system’s administration. He and fellow board member Cynthia Cade had frequent, heated arguments with former president Thomas Robichaux and vice president Lourdes Moran last year on major policy changes, and he’s publicly criticized both interim Superintendent Stan Smith and Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian for what he deems as their shortcomings

Still, he doesn’t see himself as too aggressive.

“I think that when you have a board with seven people and seven minds, you will have seven different opinions,” he said. If critics see his way of expressing opinion is combative, “then so be it,” he said.

He says he’s looking forward to getting to know new board members, and crafting a new vision for the district, as well as selecting a new superintendent. Board members may have disagreements, he said, but he wants the public to remember the previous board members’ tendency to vote unanimously  for most of their four-year terms.

The exception was last year, when discord began after Cade was passed over for the board presidency and Thomas claimed that other board members were keeping African Americans out of board leadership positions. Thomas’ ascension is the first time an African-American has held the top spot since  Torin Sanders led the board in 2008.

Ellison, 46, also has  had her fair share of controversy. She first gained attention in March when she spoke in favor of a bill that critics said could allow charter schools to discriminate against gay students. Still, that negative attention didn’t hurt her campaign – she beat two-term member Moran after gaining votes from a dedicated following in her home base of Algiers.

Since the election, she’s been keeping busy, speaking out at meetings of the Algiers Charter School Association in favor of returning schools to the board. All smiles at the inauguration, she posed with a large group of members from the audience, likely her supporters.

What was perhaps more surprising than the choices for board leadership was who didn’t get nominated for a top position –  New Schools for New Orleans founder Sarah Usdin, 43, who outspent competitors and brought in the most cash to a school board race in recent history. Usdin’s victory was widely seen as a win for the charter school movement. Her background in starting the city’s top charter-school support group and funding conduit seemed a likely propeller for her to take on a School Board leadership role.

When posed the question at the inauguration, Usdin said that there was still “lots to learn,” and she’d be taking things one step at a time.

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