NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board voted Friday night to advance a second round of candidates in its search to replace outgoing Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., according to records obtained by The Lens this week.

On Thursday and Friday, the board interviewed 15 candidates virtually and voted to advance an undisclosed number of candidates Friday night. Of those, according to records, seven will now go through reference checks by the board’s search firm, Greenwood Asher and Associates. 

The board refused to name the candidates it was advancing after Friday’s vote “out of courtesy for the candidates,” a district release stated. Board president Olin Parker and board attorney Ashley Heilprin also told a reporter the candidates would not be named until they were notified.

The state Open Meetings Law generally requires public bodies, like the Orleans Parish School Board, to hold their deliberations in front of the public. The law does provide some exceptions for sensitive discussions — including labor negotiations, legal advice on pending or potential lawsuits and  “discussion of the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person” — but the law does not allow public bodies to make final decisions in private. 

In this case, the board appears to have weeded out eight candidates in private. Board members later took a vote in public, but that public vote was not to advance seven named candidates. Instead it was to advance “one or more” unnamed candidates recommended by the search firm. 

In an interview, First Amendment and media lawyer Scott Sternberg, who has represented The Lens in legal matters, said it’s hard to imagine how the board could have eliminated those candidates without making a binding decision out of public view.

“If they went into executive session with 15 candidates and walked out with seven — I don’t know how you get from 15 to seven without a vote or a straw poll or something,” he said.

“The entire point of the Open Meetings Law is to make sure that the people understand and can participate in the goings-on of government, and the hiring of a superintendent would seem to me to be one of those things that it is designed for to be heard in public. But inherent in that is also there’s got to be some notice to what they’re voting on. If you could just vote on things generally then what would an agenda look like?”

In an interview Tuesday, Parker defended the move. 

“We’ve been assured throughout this process that we were following not only Open Meeting Law and laws related to executive session, but standard operating procedure related to a superintendent search,” he said.

Asked about the lack of transparency in voting on apparently pre-determined candidates but not naming them, Parker said the decision was made out of professional courtesy for the applicants.  

“We want to strike a balance between the maximum amount of transparency we can have with the reality that we are impacting people’s personal lives,” he said of the applicants. “We’re dealing with human beings and we don’t want anyone to find out via Twitter or social media — we want to have the opportunity to connect individually with them first.”

Parker referred The Lens to the board’s attorney for additional questions, but she did not immediately respond.

The board will hold a special board meeting on March 22 to select finalists. The finalists will be invited for interviews on March 29 at a special meeting and a “meet and greet” will be held the same day at George Washington Carver High School with each candidate that will be open to the public.

The following day, March 30, the board will hold a special meeting with the aim of appointing a superintendent. 

The candidates are:

Jawan Brown-Alexander was most recently the chief of schools for the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans. Her last day of employment was Feb. 15 according to NSNO CEO Dana Peterson. She is the daughter of John Brown Sr., who announced his intent to resign from the Orleans Parish School Board this week, after she was invited to interview. Brown-Alexander’s resume.

Meria Joel Carstarphen runs a consulting firm and is the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, where she served from 2014 to 2020. Prior to that, she served as superintendent of the Austin Independent School District and St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools. In the mid-2000s, she worked as chief accountability officer in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Carstarphen’s resume.

Charles Grandson has worked for the Boston Public Schools since 2017. He currently serves as the chief equity and strategy officer.  Grandson’s resume.

Marshall Tuck works for Great Public Schools Now, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. He was the CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that took over low-performing Los Angeles Unified School District schools, and the COO of Green Dot Public Schools charter network in Los Angeles. He’s run twice, unsuccessfully, for state superintendent of public instruction for the state of California. Tuck’s resume.

Avis Williams has been the superintendent of Selma City Schools in Alabama since 2017. She was an assistant superintendent in the Tuscaloosa City School district and high school curriculum and instruction director at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. Prior to that she was a principal.  Williams’ resume.

André Wright was the chief academic officer for the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado for five years prior to moving to MGT Consulting in Tampa earlier this year. Wright also worked as an Area Executive Director for the Fulton County Schools in Georgia where he also served as a principal. Wright’s resume.

Jermall Wright is the superintendent of the Mississippi Achievement School District, a state-run turnaround district similar to Louisiana’s Recovery School District. He was the chief academic and accountability Officer in Birmingham City Schools for two years and prior to that worked in Philadelphia, Denver and Washington D.C. public schools. Wright’s resume.

Update: This story was updated with comments from attorney Scott Sternberg.

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...