Orleans Parish School Board can’t advance a collective agenda, and we all share the blame

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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?

Deirdre Johnson Burel

Deirdre Johnson Burel

The Orleans Parish School Board: If you have attended a meeting or watched one on cable access in the past nine months, you undoubtedly have an opinion. How can we best describe the current state of the school board and its implications for public education? What insight does it offer about the most fundamental tenets of our democracy, the state of public education and our collective community at large?

I’ll warn you in advance, this isn’t going to read like you think. This is not a statement that serves solely as an indictment of the board. Instead it’s a call for a deeper examination of us (the collective us). What do we believe? What do we value and what does the way the current board behaves say about the value we place on the students and families the board represents?

My analysis is rooted in the ah-ha moment I had at a recent school board meeting. I have sat in on these meetings for the past several months, and I have to admit, I suffered through each one. This ah-ha moment was my sudden awareness that every school board meeting feels like a rerun of the previous one. At each meeting there is tension, there are antics, there are important decisions that get delayed and, with some exceptions, there is a 4-3 split.

Yes, the topics change (hiring a superintendent, developing a cooperative endeavor agreement, advancing a facility millage) but each meeting is a rerun because each meeting is a referendum on our democracy and the courage to lead — or the lack of it. For democracy to work, citizens must be engaged and speak up in ways that encourage — indeed require — our elected officials to respond in alignment with our values. They do, or fail to do so, at their own peril. So, perhaps more disconcerting than the 4-3 bloc is what it says about the fissures that divide our broader community.

Here’s what I know, democracy is slow, but its fundamental premise is just. While its processes make us uncomfortable, they require us to work beyond our own self-interest, face our demons and make room for more people at the table of opportunity. History suggests that when democracy works as it should it is anchored in values of access, opportunity and, yes, equity.

Each and every school board meeting is a referendum on those values. Each member of the board has had moments of insight and illumination — reflecting a renewed commitment to the premise that the whole is truly bigger than the sum of its parts. However, in the main, the board has consistently fallen short when it comes to bringing their individual insights into cohesion and advancing a collective agenda.

And moreover, our ability as a community to call on them to do so has also fallen short. Our general silence is deafening. Perhaps it’s because we are partial to one side of the 4-3 bloc. Is it because we’ve determined the board to be irretrievably broken — and that we’ll have to wait until 2016 to fix it? Or worse, is it because the board not working, actually works?

We do not consistently call on this board to be deliberative and effective. We do not pack the meetings when members grapple with day-to-day policy issues. We are not consistently challenging them to develop legislative processes and compromises that work.

Yet, when important issues are raised — superintendent search, cooperative endeavor agreements and millage votes — we want and expect them to land on the right side of the decision. We expect them to do what heretofore we have accepted their inability to do. I, too, am guilty. It is not sufficient to expect them to make the most advantageous decisions in the absence of deliberative and well-vetted processes. And what is certain is that there are no such processes in the OPSB playbook.

Outside of board meetings we privately applaud whichever side of the 4-3 split we agree with and publicly shame the seven for being split. With few exceptions we have not enabled or called on them to “write the vision, make it plain” and lead accordingly.

The 4-3 blocs are doing exactly what we’ve allowed them to do — simply say yes or no. We have not done our part in the democracy to hold them accountable to writing a vision that would render us a superintendent, a unified board to advance a millage, or the cohesive leadership to effectively execute a cooperative endeavor agreement. And in the face of the board’s intractability, democracy tells us we should not have to wait.

We face important decisions. And in my humble opinion, our ability to significantly change the life outcomes of young people requires system-level decisionmaking that addresses critical, citywide concerns. We need to build safety nets for all children and build systemic solutions that are bigger than the sum of their parts. Our most pervasive and difficult challenges require collective solutions.

We have a new status quo: Autonomous schools — charters — are here to stay. That being said, we do need citywide solutions and a citywide safety net. We need a school board to help us build the net.

If we are dissatisfied with the continuing indecision, we are faced with a referendum on democracy and our collective courage to lead. It is up to us to declare how important it is to have an effective superintendent, a unified school system, a facility fund, and system-wide policy solutions that meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. We must decide what will do to ensure that those decisions are made.

Deirdre Johnson Burel is executive director of OPEN, the Orleans Parish Education Network, an independent nonprofit.

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