Nolan Marshall Jr., 63, a business owner and the board’s District 7 representative, was elected Orleans Parish School Board president Tuesday night.

The move will likely soothe board watchers who see him as a calm voice in the public spats that have characterized the board in the past year. He’s emerged as a swing vote, someone who tries to smooth disagreements on a polarized board.

Marshall also has wooed some of the state-run charter schools in New Orleans back into the school board’s fold despite their trepidation about its governance. The board’s ability to get those schools back could rest on Marshall’s – and the next superintendent’s – shoulders.

Anticipating his election, The Lens interviewed him by phone Friday to discuss the school board’s future, how his leadership would be different than his feisty predecessor Ira Thomas and what he thinks a restructured school board should look like.

“Right now, there’s a lot of fingerpointing … but we don’t really go in with the mindset of how we sit at the table and work together for the betterment of our kids.”—Nolan Marshall Jr.

In an hour-long interview, he said he wants to keep reaching out to charter schools, build consensus rather than oversee conflict, and monitor compliance with rules meant to encourage contracting with disadvantaged businesses.

He also said he supports changing the makeup of the school board by reducing the number of elected members and adding people appointed by the mayor and the governor.

Here are highlights of our conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What qualities do you think the school board’s president should have?

The first quality is that he should respect all opinions, and be inclusive of all board members. He should set the agenda and how we go about conducting business in an impartial, respectful manner.

That’s what I would hope to bring to the board leadership. I want us to work towards bringing consensus to what we do, as opposed to having an agenda that we are trying to get done with or without cooperation of fellow board members.

Former president Ira Thomas publicly criticized the school board superintendent and school board staff. Do you think it’s important to hold school board staff accountable in that way, or do you think that style is abrasive?

As someone who has employed people for the last 40 years — you don’t do that. You try to not embarrass the employee. I think that’s unprofessional.

There should be employee evaluations. We have three direct employees — the board attorney, the superintendent and the deputy superintendent, Kathleen Padian. But we shouldn’t, as a board, evaluate them in public. That’s my opinion.

And as far as the remainder of the staff, any of the directors or anything like that, they report directly to the superintendent. And he should be the one to evaluate them, and call in question their performance. We should be reporting in meetings what decisions the board needs to make to move the district forward, those decisions that are appropriate for the public.

How should board meetings be conducted?

I’m not going to take one side or the other as presider of the meeting. It’s not my role. If there’s an issue that comes up that I feel strongly about, and I need to fight for and push for, then I turn that meeting over to the vice president.

And those issues that are controversial, or they may divide the board, then I would like to keep those issues off the agenda until such time that we can at least have an understanding of what the division is about. So that we can get a full understanding of the facts around those issues, and then we would be able to make a decision.

And if we’re still divided, then we’re still divided. We have to go on and put it on the agenda and still get it over with. But at least at that point in time we’re not trying to fact-find as we discuss the issue in public.

Let’s talk about charter schools switching to OPSB oversight. Some charter leaders have told me that parish school board members have not reached out to them to discuss what OPSB governance would look like.
Will the board make a concerted effort in the next year to court those leaders?

I’d like to have a committee that involves charters and the return of charters to OPSB. What would that look like? What does a district need to look like in the future? And that’s building consensus for the direction that the school system should take. We’ve never done that. Right now we have several board members and we could each have a different opinion as to what the district needs to look like in the future.

It’s still a consensus, I believe, in the community that all of the schools need to be under one authorizer. But that authorizer needs to function in manner that is in the best interest of kids.

What do you think it will take for the schools to come back?

I believe the schools will return when we can become an asset to them, when we can clearly demonstrate that we can help them educate kids. And that’s what we need to do; we need to move the district in a direction where we are truly an asset to schools. When that happens, they’ll come back.

Several groups have called for a restructuring of the school board. As board president, how do you think a revisioned school board should look?

We need everybody to participate and have a desire to improve public education. I believe that education is such an important issue that the mayor should be involved on an ongoing basis in public education. I believe because the state controls the dollars, and the state is involved in education now more than it’s ever been, the state needs to have an ongoing involvement. If we would have done this 20 years ago, the Recovery School District takeover possibly would have been unnecessary.

If we have a combination of an elected board and representatives appointed by the mayor and the governor, then they have direct influence into what’s going on. They understand what the issues are. And if we need more resources, then they can help us get those resources.

Then you have five elected board members, not seven. You have possibly four appointed, so that the elected officials still can outvote the appointed members, who should bring some expertise to the board in education, or management, or accounting. My thoughts are that five school board members would match the council members’ districts.

Have you already talked to school board counsel about how that could happen?

No. I haven’t because, in today’s climate with RSD and OPSB and everything, changing the structure of OPSB would be too controversial. And, therefore, I didn’t put that on the front burner.

It’s something that’s still there in the back of my mind. At the appropriate time, maybe in the middle of the year or so, we could then form another task force or committee to go out into the community and have dialogue about the subject. We may even use an outside agency, like OPEN or the Urban League or something like that, to facilitate that discussion.

Under your leadership, will the board continue its strong oversight of the disadvantaged business enterprise program?

Absolutely. It would even be more transparent than what it is now. Because what we have now is continued knee-jerk reactions to the failure of our policies and plans and what’s in existence in our community, more than a desire to have DBE participation and a greater fairness in awarding our contracts.

Nolan Marshall Jr.
Nolan Marshall Jr.

That work is taking place as we speak. We were requiring subcontractors to have the same amount of insurance as the general contractors. Before, I don’t care if you are a gardener or painter, you still had to have to have the same $10 million in insurance. Now, we only require the subcontractors to have the amount of insurance that the law requires them to have, per their license.

If we stop talking about it in terms of “We are doing this for DBE issues,” and start talking about it in terms of, “What are the best practices to have that make the contracts fairer, make the contracts more efficient, and save us money?” then we focus on the issues, as opposed to getting people to talk about race relations.

Looking at those things is good for all subs, not just DBEs. The more people we can have to bid on our jobs, the more competitive it is, the better price we are going to get for the business.

Those are the discussions that we’ve had and that we need to continue to have. And that’s why I want to have a task force or a committee that deals with DBE on a monthly basis. Not just in construction, because that’s all you’ve been hearing over the past year is construction. But all contracts.

As board president, what qualities do you desire in a school board superintendent?

I believe that anybody that you talk to, on the street or in the boardroom or anywhere else, will say that each and every school should have a leader that can take the autonomy and run with it. And that they should be accountable for their success or failure.—Nolan Marshall Jr.

A great leader; a great communicator. One that respects all people, and one that has the ability to build consensus.

I know a number of people feel very strongly on all sides of this reform movement. They all reach out and try to find the facts that they think will sway people to their side of the argument. But I’d like to see a great leader that can help us find the best path to educating our kids. I’m not tied to any one form of governance at the school site.

I believe that anybody that you talk to, on the street or in the boardroom or anywhere else, will say that each and every school should have a leader that can take the autonomy and run with it. And that they should be accountable for their success or failure. And if they fail, they should be changed. And if they succeed, then they should be supported.

What are some of your other ideas for improving the Orleans Parish School Board?

I think we need to really work on building consensus. I believe we need to have people with expertise to come in and help facilitate that process, and other people with accounting expertise to come in and help so that it’s a lot simpler for the public, and for us, to really truly understand our finances. Because right now, it really is difficult to understand the bottom line with funding, and how the monies are being spent — whether we are top-heavy or if too much is being spent at the school site.

I think we could do a better job of having information that is more accessible and easier to understand.

And we really need to work on what are the standards that we have for our schools, and how do we evaluate all schools. And are all schools being evaluated by the same standards. That speaks directly to accountability.

One last thing: One of the biggest problems that we have is communications and disseminating information. The public, most times, functions off of misinformation.

So I’d like to see something in place that actually gives the public an opportunity to see what’s really going on, even a board member having once-a-month TV shows. And one of the shows could be around community engagement. By having school leaders on, by having parents on, neighborhood associations on — what would they like to see in terms of community engagement at schools?

Right now, there’s a lot of fingerpointing and “We need to go in and hold them accountable.” But we don’t really go in with the mindset of how we sit at the table and work together for the betterment of our kids.

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...