This is the first of a three-part series profiling Orleans Parish School Board district races. Read our other profiles of Districts 3 and 4 and Districts 5, 6 and 7.

District 1: Lower 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans

In District 1, challenger Patrice Sentino has outraised incumbent John Brown, Sr. Brown has raised $14,425 and has not received any loans. He reported having $7,300 on hand at the beginning of this month. Sentino has raised $16,535 and has loaned her campaign $17,514. She reported having $19,399.86 on hand at the beginning of this month. 

Brown, however, has benefited from $13,400 in independent expenditures — outside spending that is not directly coordinated with a candidate — from national PAC Education Reform Now Advocacy.

Brown, a retired 30-year educator, has served on the board since 2015, when he was appointed to a vacant position. He was re-elected in 2016 and has also served as board president. 

Last winter, after protests over Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s decision to end the charter group then operating Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, Brown committed to hearing out families and the following month voted to overturn Lewis’ recommendation. Brown did not respond to phone calls. 

Sentino is a licensed social worker and works as an assistant professor at Southern University of New Orleans in addition to running her nonprofit Center for Hope Children and Family Services, which helps treat adults and children affected by mental illness, behavioral health and serious emotional disturbance. If elected, she said she would work to expand access to seats in highly rated schools and expand mental health services.

She also thinks that due to the decentralized nature of the city’s school system, individual charter groups may be spending too much on things like transportation, food services and social and emotional support services. She said she would work to provide those at district level to help schools save money.

Sentino has secured the support of state Sen. Joe Bouie, a critic of the city’s charter-based model

“We don’t have a unified system in place to ensure that every student receives social and emotional support,” she said. “I would want to look at a system-wide approach of implementing those services.”

Sentino said her center, which she founded after Hurricane Katrina, has served over 10,000 families in its 13 years of existence. “I am still out here, relevant, present and doing the work daily.”

District 2 — Upper 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly

A packed field of five candidates are vying for the District 2 seat, representing the upper 9th ward, parts of Gentilly and parts of eastern New Orleans. 

Aldine Lockett, an educator who said he is self-financing his campaign, said he thinks an educator can provide insight at the board level that would help improve graduation and dropout rates among Black, English Language Learner and special education students. The Lens could not find any finance reports thus far from the Lockett campaign. 

“Over the last few years there’s been a severe deficit in the subgroups,” he said. “We need school board members who are cognizant in how to get their needs met.”

Incumbent Ethan Ashley raised just over $16,000 last reporting period and had $15,762.82 on hand at the beginning of the month. (Education Reform Now Advocacy has made more than $29,000 in independent expenditures in support of his candidacy.)

Ashley said he would focus on expanding high quality seats, mental health resources and creating an equity plan for the district. He also said he was proud of the $15 hour minimum wage the board passed in 2018 for school nutrition workers because that helped many who worked this summer in the district’s expanded lunch program.

“I think we’re on the cusp of another pandemic, that economic recession,” he said. “We’re going to have to be thoughtful about how we balance our budget … and be thoughtful about how we are going to get resources to our young people.”

Challenger Asya Howlette has raised nearly twice Ashley’s total, coming in at over $33,000. She had about $24,300 on hand at the beginning of the month. She’s a principal at Success Academy at Thurgood Marshall. Howlette said the district’s greatest need for students and teachers is to expand mental health services and ensure the city’s schools offer diverse programs to meet students’ needs.

For the board, she thinks its greatest challenge is perspective. 

“For me the most important thing is I feel that there should be people who are inside of the buildings every single day having a voice in the policies,” Howlette said. “Especially because none of us have grown up in a charter system. So although we have public school experience, I think in order for us to solve the problems in this context we need someone who has worked in this context.”

Howlette recounted a recent OPSB meeting where district staff told board members a struggling school had adopted a new curriculum. She said it concerned her that only “surface level” questions were asked by the board. 

“None of the questions that followed up by the school board were how leaders were being developed,” she said, noting it’s details like that that will determine whether a new curriculum is successful. 

She also thinks a “more critical eye is needed when looking at the goals and the feedback that the superintendent receives.”

She has the backing of Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit leadership organization that supports its members in local races.

Chanel Payne is an educator who has worked at all levels of education from early childhood to assistant professor at Southern University of New Orleans. Payne owns a consulting firm that provides tutoring and professional development services. She’s been endorsed by the United Teachers of New Orleans union. 

Payne thinks teacher recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges facing the district.

“I think we’re having this problem with or without COVID-19 — attracting, training and retaining qualified teachers,” Payne said. “I think we’ve gotten to a place where we are more concerned with having a body in the room rather than a qualified teacher.”

To fix this problem, Payne “would like to pilot a certification program for all teachers but specifically for special education and ESL teachers.”

She will also push for more neighborhood-based schools, rather than the citywide enrollment  system NOLA Public Schools charters use now, she said. 

“It brings about a sense of what a community really should be. You increase parental involvement and decrease issues with discipline and absenteeism,” Payne said. “I know when I attended schools here our teachers lived in the neighborhood. It made a difference when we saw our teachers in the grocery store.”

“I think we’ve gotten to a place of living as individuals and I think our schools play a huge part in that,” she said. 

Payne said she’s running a grassroots campaign. “I got a donation from my second grade teacher, who continues to mentor me today.”

She has raised just over $4,800 and had a little over $1,000 on hand at the beginning of the month.

The fifth candidate, Eric Jones, has served on the charter school board of Mary D. Coghill Charter School before the charter expired and the district took control of the back. Jones resigned from that board after allegations of improper reimbursements and a district reprimand for inserting himself into daily management of the school when he instructed teachers not to give students F’s. 

Jones has raised $3,530, including a $230 loan from himself (the amount it costs to file with the Clerk of Court to run for the position). He had about $1,860 on hand at the beginning of the month. 

The campaign finance data tables published in this story have been updated to include new campaign finance reports that were released on Oct. 26, 2020.

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...