The Orleans Parish School Board on Thursday may vote to extend NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis’ contract, more than a year before the contract is set to expire, according to two board members.

The agenda item for the virtual 3 p.m. meeting is vague. It doesn’t mention a contract extension. It recommends the board “take any necessary action regarding the Superintendent’s contract”

But board members Woody Koppel and Sarah Usdin told The Lens that an extension is part of the discussion. If that comes up, the move would come months before Lewis’ next annual evaluation, scheduled for the fall. And notably, it would come before this fall’s OPSB elections, giving Lewis job security from the current board, which has largely supported him. 

Lewis’ current contract is set to expire June 30, 2021, more than a year away. Usdin said an extension now would be premature. 

“We are lucky to have him. Thankfully, his current contract doesn’t expire for 14 months, so we have solid, stable leadership to see us through at a time when we need it,” she said. “Why would we extend a contract when we have not even finished the evaluation?”

Koppel, however, supported the proposed extension. 

“We have a representative form of government and in times of crisis sometimes those boards are asked to make decisions quickly,” Koppel said. 

A new board will be elected this fall and sworn in in January. Asked about extending Lewis’ contract with a new board set to arrive before it expires, Koppel said it may relieve the new team of an exhausting search process.

“If this drags on through next year, a new board may want the stability of having a new contract,” said Koppel. 

Koppel said the proposal also includes changes to Lewis’ performance metrics. Current standards include measures on the district’s finances, including having a healthy reserve fund. But the district recently had to dip into its reserves to purchase technology for remote learning due to a statewide school closure, implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And it’s likely that further uses of the reserves will be necessary to make up for falling sales and tourism tax revenues resulting from statewide business closures and lockdowns across the country.

The public’s ability to participate in any such significant decisions about Lewis’ contract is limited, given Gov. John Bel Edwards’ “stay-at-home order” that prohibits large gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Public boards have been meeting virtually, and while the public can watch meetings and comment, it’s a more complicated process. 

Members of the public who wish to comment submit a ‘comment card’ virtually. Then, the district’s instructions state, “the meeting moderator will announce the speaker at the appropriate time, speaker is to self-identify with the ‘raise hand’ feature at the bottom of the web page, and meeting moderator will unmute audio.”

Usdin said she thinks the process is limiting while the community is focused on the crisis at hand. 

“This is such an important vote. We need school and community engagement and input. Our parents, educators, and community members are dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 right now. It seems inappropriate to take such a significant, yet unnecessary action at a virtual board meeting in the midst of that struggle with little to no community input.”

Koppel, on the other hand, said he didn’t think public engagement would be severely limited by virtual board meetings. 

“The public still emails. They still call on the phone, things like that,” he said. “Whether or not they show up at a virtual board meeting and express their concerns.”

Board president Ethan Ashley, and board members Leslie Ellison, John Brown Sr. and Ben Kleban did not respond to calls for comment. Board member Nolan Marshal said the contract amendment was an addition to the original agenda and he was going to review it before publicly commenting. 

The board meets at 2 p.m. for a public hearing on new charter school applications. The full board meeting, where Lewis’ contract will be considered, is at 3 p.m. Information on how to watch the meetings and comment can be found here

Marta Jewson

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...