School board should look for opportunity in upcoming court ruling on post-Katrina teacher layoffs

The Orleans Parish School Board has been at loggerheads for two years, unable to select a new superintendent. For ideas on how to break the impasse, The Lens invited educators and advocates — including all members of the school board — to weigh in. We are publishing their thoughts in the next week.

The basic question: What does the board need to do to break the logjam and convince a top-notch educator to take charge as superintendent?

Andre Perry

Andre Perry

A state Supreme Court ruling is pending on the Orleans Parish School Board’s decision to lay off its entire payroll in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Whatever that ruling — and, with more than a billion in compensation at stake, it could be sweeping or narrow — it will then be a time for reconciliation. As a central part of that reconciliation process, the school board should tailor its two-year search for a new superintendent accordingly.

The board needs a reconciler, a shaman and healer. That person’s singular task should be to form a “unified school district.”

Cashiering approximately 7,500 teachers and staff in the wake of disaster left an emotional hole in the city’s heart. As Florida Woods, then principal of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School, said at the time: “The people who were there should be the ones given the opportunity to rebuild. … We know the history, we know the culture of the city, the district, and the people.”

A resonating counter-narrative was epitomized in the words of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a few years later. He called Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

Woods’ claim is ethically sound. Victims should have a say in their own recovery. But Duncan’s opportunistic view neatly fit the recovery zeitgeist: the proverbial slate had to be wiped clean.

Let’s get real. Many in New Orleans believed that locals didn’t have the capacity to make needed changes to the school system. Some felt the board would rebuild the same failing institution out of self-interest. Some desperately wanted a chance to decentralize the system, and charter schools were seen as a way to do it. The architects of education reform in New Orleans did not trust the managers, employees or consumers of the prior system. That lack of trust was reflected in other sectors as well. For instance, needlessly shuttering public housing, which did not flood, kept hundreds of residents from returning home and participating in their own recovery.

You can’t just wipe a slate clean. People don’t just disappear. Nearly 5 percent of the city’s black workforce lost their jobs with the school board’s decision.

As wrong as not allowing people to participate in their own recovery has been, the subtle (or blatant) blaming of the victim is a source of continuing hurt. But let’s be clear how teachers are victims. Clearly, teachers suffered as a result of the storm. However, if the system was broken — and I am one of the stakeholders who believe it was — the teachers are also victims of a system that failed them. Thousands of teachers are still angry because the “reform” narrative cast them as what was primarily wrong.

We should own up to the feeling that the removal of teachers/victims was a necessary or incidental consequence of needed change. But if New Orleans is building a system predicated on the ethical belief that we are all in this together, then it’s time to shed the view of teachers as merely a problem to be brushed aside. The next superintendent must instead find a way to build professional and emotional bridges to victims — past and present. Most importantly, New Orleanians must become the stars of our own recovery.

Winston Churchill put it this way: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” The next district leader should see opportunity in the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on post-Katrina firings. Authentic leadership is seldom selected; real leadership emerges in difficult times. The parish school board should courageously use the pivotal ruling as an opportunity to let leadership emerge.

The ruling is expected in a month or two. That gives us the time and know-how to plan for it. The public must see the ruling as a day of reckoning. Authentic leadership can emerge from a process that acknowledges how people were wronged after the storm. We should provide opportunities for public atonement.

After an opportunity for healing, the system should be brought back into structural unity.

We’re neighbors, and the school board’s first neighborly act should be to find a superintendent who can create a system of schools under the OPSB umbrella. Make it a part of the candidate interviews: How does the prospective superintendent plan to maintain autonomous charters while finding spaces for shared services and system-wide partnership?

In addition, the Orleans Parish School Board should develop new teacher-pipeline initiatives with historically black colleges and universities to train future teachers and develop current ones.

There seems no better time to work toward a unified district — one that serves our unique system of schools.

Regardless of the court ruling, the Orleans Parish School Board must unanimously recognize the suffering of women and men who lost their homes, their jobs and dignity — not to a storm, but to human indifference. Katrina may have exposed faulty levees, but it also exposed poor social and mechanical engineering; it showed how ugly a great American city can be.

The selection of a new schools superintendent can prove that it’s never too late to build from an apology.

Founding dean of Urban Education at Michigan’s Davenport University, Andre Perry was CEO of the four-school Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network and then an associate director of Loyola’s Institute for Quality and Equity in Education.

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  • Lee Barrios

    The “architects of education reform” built in and promulgated the mistrust by not revealing the fact that the $70 million allegedly stolen by previous OPSB was in fact an accounting error. That myth has been purposely perpetuated all these years. The truth was brought out in this trial by attorney Willie Zanders. The majority of the OPSB now doesn’t want a new superintendent for a democratically elected school board. They are waiting for the perfect storm or creating the perfect storm for a new governance system. I am guessing maybe a pseudo elected board with individual contracts for autonomous charters. The actions of the players post Katrina was more than “human indifference.” It was and continues to be orchestrated disruption with a privatization agenda that has not worked well because of the inexperience of non-educators in policy control and those (like Usdin’s NSNO) making more than a few bucks in the process.

  • Psst! You don’t live here any more.

  • nickelndime


  • nickelndime

    GOOD MORNING “THE LENS”! First Glapion, then Perry. Are you trying to stir me and my ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) up?!!! LMAspO

  • nickelndime

    The New Orleans electorate is nothing to be proud of!!! However, rather than buying off a couple of corrupt politicians and some other powerful, wealthy, and politically-connected individuals for a seat on the local board, it is better to painfully admit that local school board seats should remain in the hands of the #$$$###! New Orleans electorate. One day – you just don’t know when (and this is exactly what people like Usdin, Jacobs, Pastorek, Roemer, Garvey, St. Etienne…fear the most), the New Orleans electorate (CRAZY, UNPREDICTABLE and LAZY as it is) just might get it right even when the ballot is wrong. These so-called “reformers” (attorneys, bankers, legislators, developers, promoters, accountants, PACs, law firms…) do not deal well with uncertaintly – and that is precisely why they stack the decks and tilt the fields in their favor. These people are not gamblers – the stakes are in the billions – and they just cannot afford to lose. And right now, even the Feds are helping them “do business” with public money – NSNO with its DUNS #, TFA, Educate Now!, LAPCS, 4.0, IDEALIST, KIPP, ReNEW, BES, FirstLine, Celerity…$1.8 billion dollars (construction budget)! The RSD remaining well through 2025! School building leases controlled by the RSD! State constitutional amendments, new laws with language so narrowly written that it puts the state superintendent and the RSD in control of ITSELF and everything else – district campuses, construction/renovation, financial decisions, CMOs, more takeovers, more money, more money…

  • Elizabeth K. Jeffers

    Most local educators and/or educators of color do live and work in other states. Ironically, many other districts and states have praised New Orleans teachers for our students’ academic success. It’s unfortunate that New Orleans educators never had the resources that the charters in nola now have!

  • jazz_nola

    It is amazing that after nine years of failure there are still some die hards who believe that public schools in New Orleans are doing well and the changes were necessary. For the record, the market model reforms that many leaders and privatization proponents (like Dr. Perry) have touted has consistently performed academically lower than most other school districts in Louisiana. In fact less than 5 of these reformed schools today are scoring above the state average (which is the criteria by which the schools were taken over by the state). The majority of the schools this past year are rated “D’ or “F” schools. The average ACT score for the RSD New Orleans schools is below the admission requirement of every Louisiana university. For anyone to remotely think that the reforms has been successful or the change has been good is clearly ignoring the data. With that to state “we should own up to the feeling that the removal of teachers/victims was a necessary or incidental consequence of needed change” is baffling given the nine years of failure.

    The firing of the teachers and other school personnel was illegal and senseless.

    It is also should be noted that the problem with the market model reforms is that the system is “unregulated” and that having a system of autonomous charters is not the solution, if fact these autonomous charters have resurrected equity and access issues that are beyond belief in the 21st century. Maintaining this type of system where self appointed charter school boards have unquestionable autonomy have turned our schools into profit centers where learning is not on the agenda.

    It is clear that following the recommendations in this article is a “continuation” of the failure that thousands of children and parents have been suffering through for the past nine years

  • nickelndime

    YOU’RE HIRED!!!!

  • nickelndime

    The RSD/BESE/charters have NOT MADE ANYTHING EDUCATIONALLY WORTHWHILE available to this group (and the others following) of imported, freelance, at-will, fast-tracked, no-credentials, untested (can’t pass either the teacher or administrator specialized PRAXIS examinations), inexperienced, un-vested, good-intentioned, well meaning, going-to-hell-in-a-handbag, party-on-a Friday and a Saturday night in the Warehouse District like there is no Monday! individuals whom these CMOs and charter boards have thrown into classrooms with not much more than a script (which they better damn well follow verbatim), an iPhone, and a list of student telephone numbers.

  • Hi Elizabeth – I’m not sure why you’re trying to hide your identity. To be honest, I can’t follow your reasoning here. If you look at the numbers, most teachers in both the RSD and OPSB are people of color. Is the teaching corps whiter than it was before the storm? Yes, absolutely, but it’s not the whitewash that you and other critics seek to portray it as. Furthermore, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not so parochial that your definition of a “New Orleanian” is narrowly restricted to those who were born in this city (if that’s the case, our friend Dr. Perry doesn’t qualify).

    I do agree that it’s unfortunate that prior to the storm, New Orleans educators didn’t have the resources they needed. On the other hand, what do you expect when so much was being stolen and squandered by OPSB and their cronies? For example, auditors discovered that in 2003 – the year you started teaching – over $20 million was misspent, most of it the result of payroll fraud. After the news broke, more than 300 paychecks suddenly stopped being collected by unknown individuals. Still, that’s nothing when one considers OPSB was $265 million in the red by the summer of 2005. In any case, I’m not sure how you can place the blame on reformers for these problems.

  • nickelndime

    I was having trouble following Elizabeth’s reasoning too, but I think she’s in the right city, but the wrong ward. Where in da hell is she? I would like more information. Damn the reformers – full speed ahead! churn churn churn crash n burn churn churn churn. Lilly, where is my cocktail? I will be on the verandah.

  • nickelndime

    Who posed “the basic question”? OMG! (My Gawd – not yours). Do you realize how important this is? Well, what can I say!? The basic question is so lacking that anybody could answer it, and that’s exactly what you (THE LENS) got. This certainly would explain why educational lightweights like Glapion and Perry are getting “space” on a public forum st your expense – and our time. SHOW US WAT U GOT. tick tock

  • Elizabeth K. Jeffers

    Peter, I am clearly not trying to hide my identity– it was the login. Anyone can attend or watch the BESE discussions from June and August where I, and many others, state our positions about New Orleans public education and local control.

    For the record, the Title 1 money was mishandled and not stolen. You would really learn a lot if you watched the film “A Perfect Storm.”

    Elizabeth K. Jeffers

  • Elizabeth K. Jeffers

    They repost your comments as “no name.” What proof that the Lens is tied up with educational Turnaround specialist deformers. Hmmm…. who funds The Lens anyway? Oh ok… now I get it. That’s why I don’t usually comment here!

  • For the record, the questions surrounding the disposition of Title I funds – which, as I’m sure you know, prompted the whole FBI investigation – has nothing to do with either the $20 million lost as a result of payroll fraud or the $265 million in debt. You could really learn a lot if you learned the actual facts about OPSB’s finances at that time, as well as how district funding works, in general.

    Clever wordplay about “real reform” vs. “deform” etc., etc., are great rabble-rousers (I guess?), but don’t really add a whole lot of substance to your argument. It should be noted that the act of filing civil rights complaints in no way means they have any substance, either. Journey For Justice’s civil rights complaint is, like John White said, “a joke.” You should actually read it – it doesn’t make logical sense and was clearly written by someone, somewhere who didn’t have a full understanding of who controls what. The investigation into Quigley and Lellelid’s civil rights complaint was stopped almost immediately after it was received because they provided no evidence to support their claims. They were asked to submit further documentation to support their allegations – in May – as of yet, they have not provided any.

    These are actually examples of people who take an important means of addressing legitimate civil rights violations and instead are using them to discredit their perceived political opponents. If that’s “real reform,” I’ll take an extra helping of “deform,” thank you.

  • nickelndime

    Hello Guest, I think that THE LENS has lost a lot of funding because it has not exactly performed the way that certain entities would have liked (their agenda). Hence, THE LENS has cut certain coverages, e.g., in education and the charter board meetings, which I believe is a mistake. However, it also shows that THE LENS is trying to maintain its objectivity and journalistic independence which is extremely difficult in a country and in a world that has been “bought out.” I criticize THE LENS on an on-need basis, but there was a recent commenter called “Lilly” who puts a lot of heat on and does a much better job than I. LILLY ! Whar u at?

  • Lee Barrios

    Human indifference is not a strong enough characterization of the shenanigans after Katrina (and leading up to Katrina). I expect you know, Dr. Perry, the real truth of the plan to restructure the Orleans school system and the fact that the alleged theft of $70 million dollars by the school board was in fact an accounting error and when realized was shoved under the rug. Blaming the previous board as thieves and giving full throat to the blame for all education ills on the previous administration is a cowardly and unethical (ney illegal) tactic. The truth will out however and those on the current board preventing our public schools from moving forward will be complicit in its demise if allowed to proceed.

  • Lee Barrios

    Peter – what is your take on Cowan Institute’s retraction of their analysis of the great successes of RSD charters? Mine is that they have lost their credibility for publishing defective research promoted by White and Dobard based on their lies about test scores etc. what kind of research institute would apply VAM when its use for these purposes is universally deemed unacceptable. My guess us that their mia culpa is an effort to distance themselves before the axe falls.

    As for the missing $70 million (?) that the school board was accused of stealing, I think you also know that the audit proved it was in error and that fact was kept confidential.

  • Hi Lee – Obviously, the retraction of the study is damaging to the Cowen Institute’s reputation. Someone’s head should roll for that serious a mistake. Furthermore, I think their vague explanation for retracting the report just leads to speculation like yours about about the reasons, which doesn’t help their case. I am told the confidence interval was wrong – perhaps the sample sizes were too small – but that’s only what I’ve heard second-hand.

    I’m not sure why you’re bringing up the $70 million – at no point did I dispute whether the Title I funds were stolen or not – and that money has nothing to do with the $20 million in payroll fraud OR the $265 million in debt I referenced.

  • nickelndime

    If anybody is interested, given my pseudonym posts, I am absolutely in shreds over the Cowen Institute’s retraction. I am torn apart!!!! Q: What does this mean? A: Not a gaddam thing. Q: What SHOULD it mean? A: INDICTMENTS! Hey! If I had a drink in my hand, I would throw it. This is total B$ – at public expense.

  • nickelndime

    State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is more interested in getting an injunction to stop ashes coming into Louisiana from Texas than he is in the state of education in the state. You go, Buddy. Some might say that Buddy signed off way too quickly when it came to Jindal and PARCC, but there is meaning to Buddy’s madne$$. Louisiana is going to glow when it sinks into the Gulf, but Buddy and all the Louisiana legislators will be high and dry and long gone way before then.