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

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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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