Orleans Parish schools' Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., center, speaks at an October 2018 press conference. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The Orleans Parish School Board approved a one-year contract extension for NOLA Public Schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. at a virtual board meeting Thursday evening. 

After an hour-long executive session, the board voted 5-2 to approve the one-year extension on Lewis’ $250,000 per year contract, with members Sarah Usdin and Ben Kleban voting against the extension, arguing the move was premature in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when city schools are facing the possibility of tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

“We’ve got stability right now; we don’t need to change it in my opinion,” Usdin said. “I’m even more convinced that given our financial instability we are tying up another quarter of a million dollars in a contract.”

But board President Ethan Ashley urged his fellow board members to provide stability to families during the COVID-19 crisis by extending Lewis’ contract more than a year before it is set to expire.

“Providing continuity during these times is imperative,” Ashley said. “Our priority is to offer as much stability to our parents, students and educators during this crisis.”

The board had previously considered the early extension last month. But the item was deferred after criticism from the public.

As was the case at the April meeting, the meeting agenda available before Thursday’s meeting was vague. It only showed that the board was considering an “action” on Lewis’ contract. It did not mention an extension.

State law requires that public meeting agendas be provided to the public one day in advance of meetings, and that all items be described with “reasonable specificity.”

Lewis’ current contract doesn’t expire until the end of June 2021. 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.

Prior to the meeting, The Lens called or emailed each board member regarding the potential brush up against the state’s Open Meetings Law, especially in light of the non-specific language being used two months in a row. 

Usdin said that would be a question for the board’s attorney. The others did not respond. 

It appeared that in spite of the lack of specificity provided to the public, some present were aware of what was going to be voted on. At the beginning of the three-hour meeting when the board approved the day’s agenda, board attorney Sharonda Williams said the contract amendment item could change following a scheduled closed-door session. 

“Note that item 6.1 may be modified after the executive session,” Williams said, adding “there may be a need to specify with particularity to contract amendments … as the board deems appropriate at that time.” 

Indeed, after an hour behind closed doors, the item was amended to the same one-year extension that was up for a vote in April. 

State law allows substitute motions and for motions to be added at public meetings, but it states, “The public body shall not use its authority to take up a matter not on the agenda as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes of this Chapter.”

April’s meeting appeared to have already answered the specifics of the extension. After the board voted to take up the vague contract amendment last month, three board members followed with these questions. 

“What’s the amendment?” one asked.

“What’s the term of the extension?” another followed

“I think we were looking for a motion to extend for a year. Correct?” the third asked. 

On Thursday, the board heard five public comments on the contract extension. Four members of the public clearly expressed support for the renewal, including Lake Forest Elementary Charter School CEO Mardele Early.

“A change in leadership could be detrimental to the ongoing great response to COVID-19 at this time,” Early said. 

Educator Valencia Douglas agreed. “I feel very strongly the board needs to stay the course with the excellent leadership he has shown.” 

But Kleban and Usdin not only argued the move was premature, and would tie up financial resources as poor budget forecasts for the state and school district loom.

As Usdin repeatedly sought clarity on when board members are supposed to receive agenda materials — which Williams said is 48 hours when possible — member Nolan Marshal Jr. stepped in. 

“Can I make a motion to clear the air on this?”

Board members discussed the contract for more than 30 minutes, over a slew of motions, substitution motions and questions, sprinkled with added confusion of the videoconference. A substitute motion from Usdin to deny the extension was voted down 2-5. 

“I can’t logically reach any other conclusion than to renew at this time is highly political, improperly orchestrated and in direct conflict with best practices,” outgoing member Ben Kleban said close to the vote. He is set to resign effective June 15 when his family moves out of state.

Marshal, who made the motion to extend Lewis’ contract, said experience was needed, citing his own credentials and experience in the city.

“No superintendent has stayed here for more than three to five years in decades,” Marshall said, acknowledging upcoming school board elections this fall.  “We need to give that board stability, not a leader looking for a new contract in six or seven months because his contract is up.”

As discussion moved toward a vote, Usdin made a final argument, “I remain by my comments last meeting and in fact double down on my comments. We need to do an evaluation.”

Then board member Leslie Ellison called for a vote. 

Kleban asked if members could interrupt each other to call for a vote. The lawyer said yes. Then the roll call started. 

Five to two. Contract extension approved. 

This story was updated with additional details from Thursday’s meeting.

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...