NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The Orleans Parish School Board unanimously selected Avis Williams as its next superintendent at a special board meeting Wednesday afternoon. 

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.  

“I think we have landed on someone who is an absolute star,” board president Olin Parker said. “Everyone walks away impressed by Dr. Williams. Impressed by her leadership. Impressed by her accomplishments.”

Avis Williams (Photo provided by NOLA Public Schools)

Williams was also a finalist in the Montgomery Public Schools superintendent search with an interview slated for April 7. But on Thursday, Montgomery Public Schools Senior Communications Officer Jade Jones confirmed Williams “is officially withdrawing from the MPS search.”*

She could not be immediately reached to comment on her plans, though the district sent out a press release including a quote from Williams.

“I am honored, humbled, and thrilled by this new opportunity with OPSB. I look forward to working with the community to do important work for Every Child at Every School, Every Day. I can’t wait to get started,” Williams said according to the press release.

“My thanks to the OPSB for their trust & confidence. I’m excited to listen — to teachers, students, families, and the NOLA community — and translate what I learn into meaningful actions that I hope will touch lives and open doors for all of our scholars in the future.”

Parker would be the first permanent female superintendent to serve the district, Parker said. (Ora Watson and Barbara Ferguson previously held the post, but both served in an interim capacity.)

Williams’ selection on Wednesday followed a months-long search process to find a successor to Henderson Lewis Jr., who has been in the $250,000 position since 2015 and plans to resign at the end of this school year.  Williams interviewed as a finalist Tuesday along with Marshall Tuck and André Wright. The board will still have to negotiate Williams’ contract.

Following a 20-minute executive session on Wednesday, board members emerged to vote via secret ballot on a new superintendent. Before the ballots were cast, Parker said he believed all three candidates were strong. In regards to Williams, he said one school leader remarked to him after a school visit that “‘real principals recognize real principals’ and that stuck with me.”

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. said one thing he looks for in a leader is whether the person “could help teachers be better teachers.”

“Today the overwhelming voice I’ve heard from my constituents and educators aligns with what is in my heart,” he said.

“My vote today is not only what I think is aligned with what my community wants me to vote, but also in my belief that this person has the best ability to help our school leaders, particularly in D and F schools, be better with what they are tasked to do,” he said.

Board attorney Ashley Heilprin read the six ballots, one-by-one, all in favor of Williams.

Parker said Williams will be the first woman to serve as superintendent in a permanent capacity for the district. 

Board member Katie Boudouin said she knows Williams “is ready to hit the ground running.”

Board member J.C. Romero said he was particularly impressed by Wiliams’ response during Tuesday’s interview to a question on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“One of the things that stuck out to me was something Dr. Williams said when she said ‘I would be honored and look forward to saying that I am the leader of a public school district that is anti-racsit’,” he recounted. “I look forward to collaborating with her as an educator and as a representative on this board.”

In her interview Tuesday, she spoke about NOLA Public Schools’ ongoing “right-sizing” initiative in the face of declining enrollment and said she had to lead Selma City Schools through a similar school closure process. 

“Ten years before I came in, a feasibility study recommended closing four to six schools,” Williams explained. “But nothing had been done.”

After an updated study, Williams said she ultimately closed or consolidated three schools in the city. She said it was not an easy decision, but her staff ensured “we were being very transparent about the ‘why’.”

Williams also said she’d ensure mental health and trauma resources were a focus of her tenure as well as addressing teacher shortages. She has created a leadership pipeline in Selma that is on its third cohort of participants.

Parker will now work to negotiate a contract with Williams and on a transition plan to onboard her. 

*Update: This story was updated with information from a Montgomery Public Schools spokeswoman confirming Williams withdrew as a finalist in that search.

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...