NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The search for a new NOLA Public Schools chief to replace outgoing Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr.  took another step forward on Tuesday after the Orleans Parish School Board voted to begin the process of finding a contractor that will help identify and vet candidates for the job. 

In a special meeting on Tuesday, board members unanimously approved a request for qualifications — an official 25-page document that outlines what the board is looking for in its search firm, which they hope to find by early October, and what it is looking for in a new superintendent, who will be identified later. 

In June, Lewis announced the 2021-2022 school year would be his last with the unique all-charter district. He will leave after his current contract expires. Lewis’ final school year will be his third one navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and fighting to keep schools open. Lewis has headed the district since 2015. 

At the meeting, OPSB President Ethan Ashley reflected on the previous superintendent search, which lasted several years. In 2012, Stan Smith, who then served as the district’s chief financial officer, was selected to replace longtime Superintendent Darryl Kilbert. Smith held the post for nearly three years. He served the entire time on an interim basis as a search for a permanent superintendent dragged on and survived several attempts to oust him

“Today is a really important day for the work we are going to do as a board,” Ashley said. 

“In 2013, when we were going through this process, I had the opportunity to come from the public and make a comment,” Ashley, who took office in 2016, said Tuesday.

“This document in front of you, it’s not just different, but better than what we had eight years ago,” he said. “And the most important thing — the evaluation criteria. In 2013, I think that was a sticking point within the community.”

The firm must establish a timeline for the search process, publicize it and vet candidates, help the district set a superintendent salary and arrange interviews. The firm must also develop a profile for a candidate by interviewing school leaders and staff, charter school board members, parents and students and community groups and their members.

Board member Olin Parker encouraged the public to review the document, “specifically the focus on community engagement.”

“This is a board that’s looking for a visionary, equity-minded collaborative leader and the first part of that is finding a search firm that can bring us those candidates,” Parker said.

Board member J.C. Romero echoed Parker.

“There’s a lot of intentionality behind this,” Romero said. “We are asking wholeheartedly for community support, engagement and feedback throughout this process.”

The district recently launched a website dedicated to the superintendent search. 

When the board selected Lewis in January 2015, the district looked very different. The state-run Recovery School District still oversaw a majority of the city’s schools, having taken over the majority of city schools from OPSB following Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until the following summer that the first RSD school elected to return to local oversight. Lewis also oversaw the reunification of the district, as all RSD schools finally came under district supervision in 2018.

Since that time, the district has increased centralized oversight and enforcement of what is now an all-charter school system. The changes have come incrementally after problems at individual charter schools were identified. For example, in 2019 more than half John F. Kennedy High School’s graduating class learned they weren’t actually eligible for state diplomas due to mismanagement at the school. Now, the central office requires high schools to turn in their course offerings and reviews pupil progression plans — a document that the Louisiana Department of Education requires, but does not ultimately review.

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...