Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Lens will be publishing district profiles through the rest of this week, including candidate interviews and searchable campaign finance data. Read our profiles of Districts 1 and 2, Districts 3 and 4 and Districts 5, 6 and 7.

With less than two weeks to Election Day on Nov. 3, 21 candidates are competing for seven Orleans Parish School Board seats.

The election is the first since formerly state-run Recovery School District charter schools returned to NOLA Public Schools and OPSB oversight. Four incumbents are seeking reelection and all have drawn at least one challenger. All seven seats have competitive races, a major contrast from the 2016 election, when candidates ran unopposed in four out of seven OPSB races. 

Nearly all candidates have highlighted increased mental health services for students and equity as major issues in their campaign. Where several differ is in how centralized those services should be and to what degree the elected school board should be involved in charter contract decisions. After reunification, charter contracts are nearly solely managed by NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and his administration. The board has the ability to override him only with a supermajority.

Thus far this year, OPSB candidates have reported a total of $347,245 in cash contributions and $22,695 in in-kind contributions. Of the cash contributions, about $53,000 has come from a small group of major donors who each gave at least $5,000 as of late last month.

Many of the larger contributions have come from groups and local residents who have championed the expansion of charter schools in the city in the decade and a half since Hurricane Katrina, when the state took over most of the city’s schools and placed them under the RSD. Since then, RSD leaders, allied with national and local education reform groups, oversaw a transition in New Orleans from traditional, district-run schools to a collection of semi-autonomous charters, authorized and regulated — but not directly run — by a district. RSD schools were handed over to OPSB in 2018.

Biggest spenders

The largest recipient of donations is Carlos Zervigon, who is running to replace departing District 6 board member Woody Koppel. Zervigon is an artist and former teacher who has served on several charter school boards. He is also part of a prominent philanthropic family, and sits on the boards of two family charitable foundations: the Keller Family Foundation and the RosaMary Foundation.

Zervigon is one of six candidates who has received a contribution from the largest OPSB campaign contributor so far this year: Democrats for Education Reform, which reports $15,000 to candidates. The group has given to two incumbents — Ethan Ashley and John Brown, Sr. — and four new-comers — Zervigon, Katherine Baudouin, Olin Parker and Jamar Wilson — $2,500 each. It has also given those candidates its endorsement, along with incumbent Nolan Marshall, Jr.

DFER issues a questionnaire to all Democratic candidates and based on their answers and input from an advisory board it selects candidates to endorse which includes a financial contribution. 

Leslie Leavoy, the state director for DFER in Louisiana said this election is “critical.”

“It’s apparent to us that community members, parents and families want to see the Board champion an increase in vocational education options, better teacher pay, more funding for struggling schools, investment in mental health support, recruiting teachers from local neighborhoods and communities, and better coordination of bus and transportation schedules,” she wrote in an email. 

“As the new board begins its term, we believe Board members must prioritize these initiatives along with developing a new strategic plan for our city’s schools and the NOLA-PS administration, conduct consistent assessments of district finances as we continue to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and address the academic needs of students whose learning has been disrupted over the last six months due to the pandemic.”

DFER is a New York-based political action committee that is described as an “affiliate organization” of national advocacy group Education Reform Now, with which it shares a president.  

DFER’s Louisiana arm reported raising $25,535 this year, of which $24,000 came from another affiliate group, Education Reform Now Advocacy. Education Reform Now Advocacy’s Louisiana reports show contributions of $500,000 this year from three sources: $250,000 from Education Reform Now Advocacy national, $150,000 from Walmart heir Jim Walton and $100,000 from Virginia-based education reform political advocacy group Public School Allies.

Education Reform Now Advocacy has not given directly to any candidates. It has, however, been spending in the OPSB election. Other than the $24,000 to DFER, the group has made about $60,000 in independent expenditures — ad buys, billboards and direct mail — in support of OPSB candidates Brown, Ashley, Baudouin, Marshall and Wilson.

Education Reform Now is also part of Forward New Orleans for Public Schools, a coalition of business, charitable and education reform groups. Forward New Orleans for Public Schools has secured signatures from a majority of candidates to support reforms in eight different areas of education policy. Those priorities include racial equity evaluation, planning and training, COVID-19 and emergency planning, holding schools accountable for progress, allowing successful schools to grow and replicate and ensuring students have equitable access to “excellent education.”

The second largest campaign contributor so far this year, according to campaign finance records, is Stephen Rosenthal. Rosenthal — brother of Leslie Jacobs, a longtime charter advocate who is sometimes called the architect of the RSD — has served on several charter school boards, including ReNEW Schools and Collegiate Academies. He has given $9,000 so far this cycle, spread out among eight candidates:  Ashley, Baudouin, Brown, District 4 incumbent Leslie Ellison, Marshall, Parker and Zervigon.

Rosenthal’s wife, Sandy Rosenthal, has given $5,000 this year: $1,000 apiece to Ashley, Baudouin,  Brown, Marshall and Zervigon. And Jacobs has given $1,000 each to Baudouin, Brown, Ellison and Parker.

In an interview, Rosenthal said his priorities in this race are equity, accountability, and access to high-performing schools. “Putting the needs of students first.”

“I’ve supported all the incumbents and basically I think they’ve done a good job. They’ve held schools accountable and put resources in the classroom,” Rosenthal said. “They did a really good job on the return of governance [from RSD control]. Everyone was so concerned … it went off without a hitch.” 

Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit, is supporting three first-time candidates — Parker, Wilson and Asya Howlette — with $2,500 each.

Jason Llorenz, a spokesman for the group, said the organization does not have policy priorities and believes local leaders are best able to identify changes that should be made in their communities.

“We support all of our members who decide to take up civic leadership on behalf of kids,” Llorenz said.

Usdin for Orleans School Board, departing District 3 board member Sarah Usdin’s campaign fund, has given to at least three candidates. Brown and Zervigon received $1,000 and Parker and J.C. Romero each received $2,500 from the Usdin campaign. Usdin has also contributed $2,500 of her personal money to Parker, who is running in District 3.

Meanwhile, the local teachers union United Teachers of New Orleans has endorsed seven candidates. They are John Brown Sr., Chanel Payne, Olin Parker, Winston “Boom” Whitten Jr., Antoinette Williams, David Alvarez and Nolan Marshall.

UTNO has lost much of its membership and political power as a result of the move to charter schools. Its collective bargaining contract with the district was upended by Hurricane Katrina. The district was forced to lay off 4,300 teachers because it had no students and thus no funding in the wake of the storm. Many of those teachers did not return.

Except for two charter schools with collective bargaining agreements, charter schools have largely remained resistant to unions in the city and school staff frequently work on one-year contracts. Unions often characterize the reform movement as counterproductive for teachers, stripping teachers of long-held job protections and pension plans, while employing highly paid administrators. Reformers argue the changes weed out bad teachers. 

UTNO’s political action committee, UTNO Committee on Public Education, has not been active in this election cycle. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, UTNO’s affiliate statewide union, had about $287,000 on hand in its PAC as of the end of September, most of that from the American Federation of Teachers national union. The group has not yet reported any political spending so far in this cycle. 

Election Day is Nov. 3. Any candidate who wins a majority of the voters in his or her district wins outright. If no candidate in a district race wins outright, the two top vote-getters will advance to a runoff election on Dec. 5. You can find out which Orleans Parish School Board district you live in by visiting the Secretary of State’s website and looking at your sample ballot.

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...