NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board on Thursday selected Grisela Jackson as its interim board member to complete the term of board member Ben Kleban, who announced he would step down earlier this year. In the midst of nationwide protests over racism and police violence, the board also approved a proposal to examine its policies and procedures and develop a racial equity plan for the district.

Jackson, who helped reopen Crocker charter school after Hurricane Katrina, serves on the New Orleans College Prep board, which runs Crocker, and co-owns a business. 

“I am not afraid of a challenge. I am afraid of not answering a question,” she said in her presentation, praising all who supported her in her education in New Orleans public schools and outside of them. “As so many who were there for me, I humbly ask for your vote so I can be there to support the families of District 5.”

There were three candidates for the seat, which covers parts of Central City, Uptown and the Lower Garden District. Jackson received six votes. Another candidate, Katie Baudouin, received one, from Woody Koppel. Jackson will serve the final seven months of Kleban’s term. He is moving with his family to Washington state. 

Each board member and Lewis thanked Kleban for his service. 

All seven school board seats are up for election in November.

Racial equity plan

The virtual meeting began with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence out of respect for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man whose killing in police custody sparked nationwide unrest over injustice and racism. New Orleans has seen a number of large protests — some with thousands of people attending — since Floyd’s killing, including last week, when New Orleans police deployed tear gas on demonstrators as they attempted to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge.

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. advocated for the district proposal to create a plan to address racial inequities in local public schools and district administration, saying, “Racial injustice is known all too well” by students, parents, all the way up to board members. The district serves roughly 45,000 students. Eighty percent are African-American. 

The consultant will review things like discipline data and racial disparities in the central office’s staff, including promotion, retention and compensation. It will also seek to answer whether school resources officers are trained in restorative practices and whether all students should receive “Know your rights” training. It will evaluate whether students receiving “wraparound services,” or extra academic or other help, are receiving services that consider their cultural needs. 

It’s unclear how widely adopted such a plan might be, however. The district is made almost entirely of charter schools, which are largely free to set their own policies. Next year, the district will have just one traditional, direct-run school. 

Board members unanimously approved the proposal. The board will hire a consultant “to evaluate district policies, practices, and procedures to develop a racial equity plan to ensure that racism does not affect outcomes and experiences for our students and families.”

Five members of the public spoke in support of the resolution. Several asked the board to broaden its work, including Lona Hankins, a former Recovery School District employee. 

“I’d like to encourage you to go a little bit further in this resolution and specifically add class to it,” Hankins said. “Because in New Orleans we have an issue in how we treat people, not just specifically as to their race.”

Hankins also asked the board to specifically spell out its own policies and practices — in how it conducts meetings and interacts with the public — in addition to school policies.

“When you take the mic [at a board meeting] and have a staff person standing adjacent to you or a security guard standing next to you that can be a little intimidating,” she said. “Especially for some of our communities who might not normally speak out.”

She encouraged the board to broaden the review to include charter contracts “as to how they establish their discipline practices.”

Any plan that emerges could address district policies that apply to schools throughout the city, but those are more limited in New Orleans than in many other school districts because NOLA Public Schools is decentralized, made up almost entirely of charter schools. 

While some district policies — including those on admissions, enrollment and expulsion procedures — apply to charter schools, charters enjoy autonomy when it comes to things like hiring decisions, curriculum and budgeting. Many district policies only apply to the schools it runs directly. 

Next year, only Mary D. Coghill Elementary will be run directly by the district and subject to all OPSB-created policies.

The district “encouraged” its charter schools to review their policies as well, but the resolution does not require it. Lily Clark, who spoke in favor of the plan, asked for more information on that.

“The part I’m drawn to is to encourage OPSB-authorized [charter] schools to do this work, too,” she said. “I’m concerned about what’s happening in the schools and whether you’re getting a true picture of what students and families are experiencing.”

Angele DeLarge from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools supported the work as well, and raised another concern. 

“Speaking as a black woman, I’ve been concerned with the many phenomenal black women who have worked with me at NOLAPS who have left.”

Two additional public comments requested teachers explicitly be included in building the plan. 

The Orleans Parish School Board doesn’t have a contract with the New Orleans Police Department, according to a district statement sent by a spokeswoman. Typically one officer staffs board meetings, but on occasion over the past year The Lens has observed two or three officers at those meetings and asked about it. 

“As situations demand, that number has increased to 2 or 3 officers from time to time to continue assured safety on site,” the statement said. 

The district does have a cooperative endeavor agreement with the department for “active shooter trainings for schools,” the district statement said.
The board also approved a small financial relief measure for schools, which educators praised.

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...