Campaign signs for Orleans Parish School Board District 3 candidates on the Banks Street neutral ground on Election Day 2020. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Just two of seven Orleans Parish School Board races were decided Tuesday night, with only one out of four elected incumbents — John Brown, Sr. — winning a majority of district votes. In the open District 3 seat, Olin Parker won outright against Phil Brickman. The other seats will be decided in the Dec. 5 runoff election. 

In District 1, Brown held on to his seat with 52 percent of the vote against challenger Patrice Sentino. In District 3, newcomers Parker and Brickman went head to head in a race to replace member Sarah Usdin. Parker won with 64 percent of the vote in the two-man race. Incumbents Ethan Ashley, Nolan Marshall Jr. and Ellison will head to runoffs. Grisela Jackson, an interim member of the board who was appointed to Ben Kleban’s seat after he stepped down in June, came in third in her race and will not advance to the runoff.

The election is the first since state-run Recovery School District charter schools in New Orleans reunified under local control. In 2016, the last OPSB election, the majority of city schools were still run by the state. That year, due to apparent lack of interest or pre-election disqualifications, four of seven seats were decided before Election Day. By contrast, twenty-one candidates were on the ballot Tuesday, and no one was running unopposed.

The issues have also changed somewhat as the unique district — which is now made up almost entirely of charter schools and only runs one school directly — largely oversees semi-autonomous charter groups that independently pick curriculum and hire staff.

Post-reunification, charter contracts in the city are managed, almost unilaterally, by NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and his administration. The board has the ability to override his decisions about whether to close schools only with a supermajority. Some candidates think more of that power should return to the board, while others fiercely believe in the current model. 

Most candidates said they were focused on expanding mental health services, working to ensure equity in both district ranks all the way to classrooms. Candidates also said they were focused on ensuring the district would have a balanced budget, anticipating negative tax impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools, along with the city, were shuttered in March and though many have partially reopened buildings to students, the same health concerns created by the pandemic meant campaigning looked different this year — in virtual town halls and debates over the past several months. 

This year, all seven district seats had competitive races and many candidates collected five-digit contributions in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Four incumbents — Nolan Marshall Jr., John Brown Sr., Leslie Ellison and Ethan Ashley — and one interim board member, Grisela Jackson, were seeking to retain their seats. Jackson was appointed to Ben Kleban’s seat after he resigned in June. Members Woody Koppel and Sarah Usdin did not seek reelection. 

Brown, Parker and four candidates had significant financial backing from Democrats For Education Reform. DFER spent at least $15,000 in direct donations. 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.

An affiliate group, Education Reform Now Advocacy has continued to spend significant money supporting several candidates. Between Sept. 25 and Oct. 23, the group spent more than $352,000 in ad buys, billboards and direct mailing to support Ashley, Baudouin, Brown, Parker, Marshall, Wilson and Zervigon. 

The group also spent $6,700 on opposition mailers for candidate Kayonna Armstrong and some mailers supporting Olin Parker in District 3 are double sided with a message against Phil Brickman.

District breakdowns

In District 1, which covers the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, Patrice Sentino, a licensed social worker and assistant professor lost a close race to lifelong educator and incumbent John Brown Sr. Brown got 52 percent of the vote. 

In District 2, covering the Upper 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, and Gentilly, incumbent Ethan Ashley drew four challengers. Aldine Lockett, Asya Howlette, Chanel Payne and Eric Jones. No candidate won a majority of the vote. Ashley, who received 36 percent of the vote, will be up against Payne, who received 27 percent of the vote, in the runoff election. 

A new face will represent District 3, which covers Mid-City, Lakeview, Gentilly. Attorney Phil Brickman and recent Louisiana Department of Education employee Olin Parker went head to head for Sarah Usdin’s seat. She did not seek reelection. Though misleading totals appeared to show Brickman secured more votes at the polls, when final votes came in Parker won with 64 percent of the vote. 

In District 4, representing the West Bank, Bywater and French Quarter, incumbent Leslie Ellison went up against educators J.C. Romero and Winston “Boom” Whitten Jr. Ellison secured 49.86 percent of the vote, just shy of the majority required for an outright win. She will face J.C. Romero in the runoff. 

District 5, which covers a wide swath of Uptown and Central City, Katie Baudouin and Antoinette Williams took on current District 5 board member Grisela Jackson. Jackson, a business owner, was appointed to the board in June filling the empty seat. Baudouin is a city council staffer and previously worked with Medicaid programs at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Williams, a recent McDonogh 35 alum and current Xavier University student, is running to be a voice for students. 

Jackson failed to make the runoff with only 21 percent of the vote. Baudouin led Williams by 741 votes, capturing 41 percent of the vote to Williams’ 38 percent. They will head to the Dec. 5 runoff. 

“I look forward to December when we can finish this race together and get to the hard work of moving our school district forward with accountability and a quality experience for every child that walks through a public school door,” Baudouin said late Tuesday. 

In District 6, which covers the remainder of Uptown, Carrollton and Hollygrove, David Alvarez, Erica Martinez and Carlos Zervigon were on the ballot Tuesday. Alvarez is the director of LA Voz de la Comunidad and Martinez works in mental health. Zervigon is an artist and former teacher and charter school board member.

Zervigon earned 42 percent of the vote while Martinez narrowly beat out Alvarez to face Zervigon in the runoff. 

In District 7, which splits the Mississippi River, covering Algiers, Gentilly, Treme, and the 7th Ward, two newcomers ran against two-term board member Nolan Marshall Jr., Jamar Wilson, a 10-year educator, and Kayonna Armstrong, a teacher, paraprofessional and parent advocate, are challenging him for the seat.

Marshall and Armstrong, earning 44 percent and 42 percent of the vote, respectively, will face each other in a runoff Dec. 5. 

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...