Orleans Parish School Board members met Tuesday to discuss their ongoing search to replace outgoing NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr., who announced in June that he would step down from the $250,000-per-year job at the end of this school year.
At Tuesday’s committee meeting, employees of the board’s contracted search firm, Greenwood/Asher and Associates, questioned board members about the qualities they’d like to see in a new district leader.
“Our goal for today is to try to have you share with us anything you think will be useful to us as we build our position profile, as we begin our conversations with people locally, regionally, and nationally,” Greenwood Co-Founder Betty Asher said. “We become your messengers in many ways for the next few months.”
The Greenwood team is building out a job position description over the next couple of weeks, in addition to crafting interview questions and beginning listening sessions with members of the public, charter school and district employees and community members.
“It’s really important for us to hear what your expectations are — we think that’s one of the important identifiers of a successful search,” Asher said.
Asher, along with colleagues Susanne Griffin and David Presley, posed several questions to board members to gather feedback at their Tuesday afternoon committee meeting.
“What background experiences and professional interpersonal competencies are needed for the next superintendent to be successful?” Presley asked.
He followed that with a question asking board members to describe the opportunities and challenges NOLA Public Schools’ next superintendent would face and what they would need to focus on in their first three years at the job.
“What do you think is most important to know for our recruiting efforts as we share with candidates?” Presley asked.
Board members Ethan Ashley and J.C. Romero said that improving district and charter school employee racial diversity should be a priority for the next superintendent. They also said that during the public engagement process, the consultant group should make sure that the community members they speak to are representative of district students and their families, who are mostly Black with a growing Latino population.
The two board members referenced a financial presentation earlier in the meeting. After district staff completed its presentation on the district’s specialized per-pupil funding formula, several members of the public — finance employees at city charter schools and education policy experts at local nonprofits — gave public comments. Nearly all were white.
“I just want to acknowledge, sitting here, we talked a lot about differentiation of funding, which I appreciate,” Ashley said following the funding report. “Man, it looks like we also need to differentiate our staffing at the finance level. It was a lot of non-brown faces and [non-] Black faces talking about finances relative to young people who y’all don’t necessarily look like.”
Ashley commended them for their work but implored the district and its charter groups to work on staffing, including charter leadership, that was more representative of the school population. Charter groups employ the majority of the city’s education staff, including teachers.
“Our district is really unique but at the end of the day this district predominantly serves Black and brown children,” Romero said to the search firm consultants. “So I know it’s really important to me that your processes for engagement … look like the makeup of our schools in our city.”
Board members Katie Baudoin, Nolan Marshall Jr. and Olin Parker explicitly cited the need for the city’s next leader to excel at collaboration — all three noting the unique set up of the decentralized system that in policy requires working with charter leaders before changing certain district policies.
Parker also implored that a new superintendent be “equity-minded,” have the ability to set a bold vision, attract talented staff and the ability to respond to disasters.
Both Ashley and Parker said accountability was an area that would need special attention in coming years. After two years with no official state school performance scores as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashley said, it may be time to look at additional metrics within the district to see how well schools are serving students. Parker said the system needs to move beyond “accountability 1.0” and find ways to take student academic growth into account.
Longtime board member and former school principal John Brown Sr. said a new superintendent needs to keep talented leaders and teachers in the system.
“The number one issue in this school district … is trying to keep the really really great teachers and educational leaders in our schools,” he said. “One of the things we have to do is figure out how to better compensate them.”
Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. said the NOLA Public Schools district faces many of the same challenges other large urban districts encounter across the country.
“We are not unique. The problems we face are the same they face in Dallas and Chicago,” he said. “We’re not unique in the problems. But we are unique in that in this city education is the conversation, and how we move to the future of education is on everybody’s mind.”
Members of the community who wish to keep up to date with the search can follow the district’s superintendent search website. The consultants are also taking community feedback there regarding what members of the public and school community would like to see in a new leader.
Outstanding charter school renewal to be announced Thursday
The board also discussed a lingering decision in the annual charter school renewal process.
All but one of the city’s charter schools that awaited their charter contract renewal this winter learned their fate last month — when district officials announced 13 schools would receive new charters and two would ultimately close at the end of the school year.
The one remaining school is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward. The delay on the decision came after district officials issued a warning letter alleging that the school had failed to follow federal special education laws. It also recently issued a less serious warning — called a level one warning — to the school over its process of conducting employee criminal background checks.
The district appears to be focused on the legally required background checks at charter schools following an investigation into James M. Singleton Charter School earlier this year. Officials alleged that at least one Singleton employee forged background checks for several employees.
Interim Chief Schools Accountability Officer Litouri Smith said staff returned to the school on Friday to follow up on the warning and check the school’s progress fixing the problems the district identified.
“The school obtained the appropriate background checks since our last meeting,” Smith said. He said accountability staff will present Lewis with a recommendation on whether King’s charter should be renewed before the Orleans Parish School Board’s full meeting on Thursday.
District Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said on Tuesday that the district’s COVID-19 testing program has grown from roughly 11,000 participants each week to more than 16,000.
“This is incredibly important now as we’re dealing with the unknown impacts of the omicron variant and approaching the holidays,” she said.
Though district cases remained low this week, quarantines tripled and local universities have seen a recent rise in cases. Delcour said the district is working to schedule more testing days at its schools prior to the holiday break and in the days leading up to children returning to campus.
Delcour also discussed vaccination rates for the district’s youngest students, who have only recently become eligible for a COVID vaccine.
“Harriet Tubman, third through eighth grade, as of yesterday is over 50 percent vaccinated which far exceeds the city’s number” for young children, Delcour said.
She said the district will focus on promoting vaccines in the lead up to Mardi Gras.