Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference.

Orleans Parish School Board members on Thursday backed off a fleeting proposal to extend their superintendent’s contract after hearing criticism about the unclear, last-minute process — amid a pandemic — that members of the public said failed to rationalize the proposed move. 

It’s unclear why the extension was being pushed now. NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s contract doesn’t expire until next year. Between now and then, there will be an election for OPSB members, and any newly elected board members will take their seats. Lewis’ annual evaluation won’t be completed until this fall. 

In addition, OPSB is only meeting virtually, due to the coronavirus crisis, meaning members of the public are unable to participate as they normally would.

The details of the proposed one-year contract extension for Lewis only became clear to the public after multiple community members spoke against the vaguely worded item on the board’s Thursday agenda and board members asked one another for clarification on the motion.

The item that appeared in the agenda didn’t mention a contract extension. It only included a recommendation that the board “take any necessary action regarding the Superintendent’s contract.”

After an hourlong executive session, during which time several members of the public asked the board via a chat function in its virtual meeting to re-open its public comment process, member Ben Kleban asked fellow members for clarity. 

“What’s the amendment?” he questioned.

“What’s the term of the extension?” member Nolan Marshall Jr. followed. 

“I think we were looking for a motion to extend for a year. Correct?” member John Brown Sr. said. 

Asked by the board’s attorney if he wanted to amend the unclear motion to extend Lewis’ contract by one-year, Brown said yes. After a second, the floor was open to public comment.

The board then heard six public comments that largely criticized the brief and unclear process that led to the proposal. One came from former Recovery School District superintendent and current New Schools for New Orleans CEO Patrick Dobard.

“When you came out of the executive session, there wasn’t any discussion as to why now,” Dobard said. “And to also know what are some of the pros and cons you’re weighing.”

He criticized technical difficulties, which resulted in a 10-minute delay while members figured out how to connect audio and other issues, after the meeting was reopened to the public.

“You know very well that families don’t have access to wifi. And they are struggling in this regard,” he said. “What’s the urgency to do it right now? I ask you to consider those things because of the challenging times that we’re in.”

After the final public comment, board member Sarah Usdin, who earlier in the day voiced opposition to a contract extension, chimed in. 

“I don’t understand why we need to do this right now,” she said. “Our schools are in crisis, our communities are in crisis, Dr. Lewis is doing a great job.”

She criticized a lack of process, the timing of the suggested extension, and technological issues during the virtual meeting, noting a district priority was distributing laptops and families so they could connect for schoolwork. “They’re not able to get online or even properly engage with us.”

Just as she prepared to offer a substitute motion, Brown interrupted. 

“Well Sarah, if you don’t mind, I think maybe we can resolve this,” he said. “I think in our executive session that we did have some reasons put forth that we should go forward with it. But I’ve heard comments from the community, and from a wide variety of people with different interests in schools and the well-being of our kids. I think this probably is not the best time to do this. So in saying that, I’d like to withdraw my motion, Mr. President.”

Members of the public (in a chat window) beg to give input 

The proposed change came amid a statewide school shutdown aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and “stay-at-home order that has caused many public meetings to move online. Lewis’ current contract doesn’t expire until the end of June 2021. 

Thirty minutes into the board’s closed-door session, Holly Reid, the policy director of New Schools for New Orleans asked a question in the virtual meeting’s chat window. 

“Will the board reopen it so additional public comment can be made on the final action item?” she asked.

Shortly after that the chat QR code that allows public comment was opened for a few seconds and then it was closed. Twenty minutes later, Reid asked again.

During a normal meeting, she said, “a member of the crowd would speak up and ask to be able to speak past the deadline, and the board chair would be able to make a decision whether or not to allow it. That can’t happen here via virtual meeting,” she wrote. “
When the board returns, please ask them to consider reopening public comment submission. Thank you!”

Then Leslie Leavoy, the deputy state director of Democrats for Education Reform piped up too. “
Would like to echo that request—I think I missed the deadline by a couple minutes and would like the Board to consider reopening the public comment submission. Many thanks!”

Another member of the public asked too, noting “this is a virtual platform during a critical time.”

Board president Ethan Ashley allowed for comments to be reopened and six speakers spoke in total. 

Ashonta Wyatt, a local educator and former candidate for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, criticized the proposed motion, noting Lewis’ next annual review was due at the end of this year, before his contract expired.

“I’m not sure what the haste is to want to extend it during a global pandemic when parents and families are struggling,” she said. 

Another commenter, Simone Miller, noted the board had entered the executive session without taking public comment. She also specifically asked that member Ben Kleban not participate in any vote. Kleban is leaving the board effective June 15

“I don’t believe he should be able to make any further decisions that will impact the children of New Orleans,” she said. 

“In the fall, under a different board, I believe his scheduled evaluation and any discussions regarding his contract can happen at that time,” she said. 

Former Recovery School District employee Lona Hankins said there was no need to rush a renewal. “It is unfortunate that you guys chose the middle of the work day, during the middle of a  pandemic to hold this meeting.”

Caroline Roemer, the head of the Louisiana Association for Public Charter Schools, praised the work of the board and Lewis during the pandemic, but criticized the timing of the proposed extension.

“I would suggest in the future you align the evaluations and extensions,” she said. “And assure they are based in a public discussion with the performance metrics (in mind).”

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...