School board needs clear direction, not superintendent who will tolerate ambiguity

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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?

The Orleans Parish School Board has been unable to move forward in its search for a new superintendent and I think I know why.

One of the major problems with getting a new superintendent is latent in the advertisement for the position that appeared in Education Week. After describing the system’s complex mix of charter and direct-run schools and the improvements since Katrina, the ad reads as follows:

The desired superintendent must have superior leadership and management skills and a high tolerance for ambiguity as s/he leads the District, under the governance guidance of the OPSB, on the trajectory of continued improvement and reunification. S/he must demonstrate a thorough understanding of both direct-run and charter schools and the successful engagement of parents, community organizations and many other interested stakeholders in determining a commonly held vision and long-term direction for the schools.

There are several portions of the advertisement that are problematic for me, but I’ll focus on that first sentence:

The desired superintendent must have superior leadership and management skills and a high tolerance for ambiguity as s/he leads the District, under the governance guidance of the OPSB, on the trajectory of continued improvement and reunification.

Karran Harper Royal

Karran Harper Royal

To attract a top-notch educator to take charge as superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board schools, the OPSB must spend some time examining itself to ensure that it exemplifies the values of a board focused on reunification. Through their actions, I don’t believe it’s the goal of the entire board to reunify the district.

Obviously we want a superintendent with superior leadership and management skills. However to expect such a person to have “a high tolerance for ambiguity” sends the message that the board will not be clear in its guidance, especially as they seek a unified school district.

The OPSB would have gone a long way towards demonstrating that it does indeed value reunification if, when given the opportunity to vote on a resolution to seek the return of John McDonogh High School to the OPSB, the vote had been 7-0 instead of 6-0. Board member Sarah Usdin was present in the auditorium when that vote was taken but chose not to be seated and vote along with her fellow board members. Had Usdin voted for that resolution, it would have sent a strong message that all members of the board were focused on reunification of the school district.

Usdin represents my district. As her constituent, I recently asked her about her decision not to vote for either of the two finalists for superintendent. She told me that board members are privy to more information about the candidates than the general public and that she did not feel that the final two candidates were qualified.

At first blush I could accept her answer as a responsible way to look at an important decision. But upon further reflection, I began to wonder: How is it that, despite the board’s use of a qualified search firm, two unqualified candidates would end up as finalists?

Clearly a simple majority of board members felt that at least one of the candidates was qualified when they voted 4-3 to move Kriner Cash forward to the next stage in the process. But selecting a superintendent requires a supermajority — five votes — and I agree with that. The four board members who voted for Cash had access to the same information as the three members who held out.

It was refreshing to see two board members, Cynthia Cade and Leslie Ellison, change their vote to move Cash to the contract-negotiation and public-meeting phase of the search process. I believed that these four members understood the importance of moving forward in selecting a superintendent for our district so that we could work together to improve and unify the district.

In explaining her stance, Usdin told Times-Picayune that we need a “stellar leader.” Board member Seth Bloom said he was holding out for someone “on the upswing,” while Woody Koppel wanted a “better choice.”

There were more than 60 applicants for the job of Orleans Parish schools superintendent. Certainly, the final two candidates were qualified. Terms like “stellar leader,” “better choice” and “on the upswing” are subjective. We have two candidates who have been judged qualified by the search firm hired by the board, and a simple majority of board members believe that these two finalists are indeed qualified enough to warrant a vote.

We will never get to the perfect superintendent candidate. No one is perfect. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Achieving a supermajority — that elusive fifth vote — would at least let the general public get a closer look at a prospective superintendent.

The three members who are holding out leave me to wonder if they really are focused on the goal announced in the Education Week ad: that of improving and reunifying Orleans Parish Schools.

We don’t need a new superintendent who will tolerate ambiguity. We need the current board to be unambiguous in its search for a superintendent and clearly focused on reunifying and improving this district. With clear guidance from a unified board, we can move this district forward.

Karran Harper Royal is a member of the Coalition for Community Schools, an education advocacy group that has filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging racial bias in the management of New Orleans schools.

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