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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools (Part III)



Part III: Determined Leadership: The third installment in a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System

In an exchange over his proposed reorganization plan at a board meeting last April, Dr. James Meza said what, in effect, has been his mantra since assuming the district’s top post: “We’ve got to be more successful. We need to focus all of our attention and energies on teaching our children. Everything else is secondary.”

Superintendent James Meza has demonstrated an uncommon ability to build support around his reform initiatives.

Superintendent James Meza has demonstrated an uncommon ability to build support around his reform initiatives.

While it’s exactly the kind of clear-cut statement that one might expect from a former colonel in the Army National Guard, Meza’s tenure in Jefferson Parish has shown that he is not easily pigeonholed. Over the past two years, Superintendent Meza has demonstrated an uncommon ability to build support on the board and in the community around his initiatives. As a result, he has been able to push through a series of far-reaching reforms in rapid succession.

Immediately following his appointment, Meza shifted nearly every senior district administrator to acting status, making clear that the decision to renew their contracts would hinge on their performance. He also initiated a high-level review of the district’s policies and academic performance to identify JPPSS’s strengths and areas-for-improvement.

When he presented his findings in a presentation to the board two months later, Meza put forth a strong case for a radical change in the structure of the central office from a top-heavy bureaucracy to a decentralized support system focused on the needs of schools. In addition, he outlined his plan to give schools greater autonomy over their use of time, money, and talent, while holding them to higher expectations for performance.

Although his proposals won the support of the school board, not everyone was enthusiastic about the changes outlined in Meza’s plan. For example, when it became clear that layoffs were necessary to offset a projected budget shortfall, Meza’s plan to base reduction-in-force decisions on performance rather than seniority was challenged by the local teachers’ union. Furthermore, his intention to close or consolidate a handful of chronically low-performing, under-enrolled campuses ran into opposition from members of those school communities.

Underlying Meza's reforms is a belief that all children, regardless of race or socio-economic background, can thrive academically.

Underlying Meza’s reforms is a belief that all children, regardless of race or socio-economic background, can thrive academically.

Whereas other leaders might have wavered in the face of opposition, Superintendent Meza pressed ahead with his reforms, arguing that they were necessary to provide more resources and assistance to schools. Meza’s determination to see through his reform plan is a reflection of his belief that all children, regardless of race or socio-economic background, can thrive academically when given the right amount of encouragement and support. As a long-time friend noted, “Jim’s always had the conviction that where you’re born and the zip code where you were born … should not be the determining factor for the rest of your life. He believed urban schools could be successful.”

In the end, Meza’s relentless focus on students carried the day, and as a result, he has been able to accomplish nearly all of the goals he’s established over the past two years. It’s a record of success that has earned what in the “Who Dat Nation” is considered highest form of praise, when board member Mark Jacobs referred to Meza as a “Drew Brees-caliber superintendent.”

On Thursday, we conclude our four-part series on Jefferson Parish, with a look at Mass Insight’s role in developing the district’s reorganization plan.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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PSA: It’s Millage Time Three School Taxes Are Up For Renewal On October 14th



Voters in New Orleans will be heading to the polls next month for the first round of several high-profile citywide races. While the contests for mayor and various city council seats have drawn plenty of attention, three important school board millages are also on the ballot (literally at the very bottom, so don’t miss them).

The millage proposal language on an Orleans Parish sample ballot from the Louisiana Secretary of State.

The three proposals simply renew existing property taxes for another decade and will provide our city’s public schools with approximately $38 million annually. Funding from these millages will benefit both charter and traditional schools, whether they’re under the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board or the Recovery School District. If they are not renewed, schools will receive $850 less per student each year, resulting in cuts that will negatively impact our kids.

Public schools in New Orleans have made tremendous gains over the past 12 years and the revenue generated by these taxes will help ensure that progress continues.

That’s why New Orleanians should vote YES on all three school board millage proposals when they head to the polls on October 14th.

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Dark Money Duplicity The Teachers Unions Decry Dark Money, But Spend Plenty Of It



On Monday, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) announced they had reached a legal settlement with Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy (FESA), a major backer of last year’s failed ballot question to raise the state’s charter school cap, following an investigation that found the group had violated campaign finance laws.

Under the terms of the settlement, FESA paid a $426,466 fine – the largest campaign finance penalty in the Commonwealth’s history – and agreed to dissolve itself. The organization was also forced to reveal its list of donors, which they had previously refused to disclose.

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy was a 501(c)(4) that supported last year’s ballot initiative to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts.

As might be expected, the news prompted an outburst of schadenfreude from the teachers unions and their allies, who spent over $15 million to defeat the charter cap proposal. They also seized the opportunity to once again portray charter supporters as nothing more than tools of wealthy political interests.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told the Boston Globe, “I’m shocked but not surprised. We always knew that they didn’t want the public to know it was being funded by millionaires and billionaires.”

Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union took to social media to revel in FESA’s downfall. On Facebook, BTU shared a statement on the OPCF settlement from “our friends at Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance,” a group which the union just so happens to underwrite.

Plus, Maurice Cunningham, a UMass political science professor and teachers union advocate, penned a widely shared and uber-snarky blog post for WGBH News, in which he called FESA “a dark money front designed to hide millions in contributions from plutocrats,” and said charter supporters “are not poor families eager to improve their children’s schooling but billionaire financiers.”

Let him who is without sin…

The condemnations of “dark money” from the unions and their supporters may not be surprising, but they are certainly hypocritical. Although the teachers unions incessantly decry secretive political spending by their opponents, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and their affiliates have made ample use of dark money to conceal their campaign funding.

Dark money groups are usually 501(c)(4) organizations – or “social welfare organizations” as defined by the IRS – which can spend an unlimited amount to support candidates and issue campaigns. However, since they’re technically supposed to be focused on social welfare activities, they can direct no more than 50% percent of their total spending toward political efforts.

A breakdown of super PACs vs. dark money groups.

Unlike super PACs, dark money groups are not required to disclose the names of their donors and therefore are often used by individuals and organizations to hide their contributions. In fact, super PACs and dark money organizations often work in tandem, allowing donors to secretly fund super PACs through their designated 501(c)(4) organizations.

A hypothetical example of how 501(c)(4) organizations are used to conceal the source of campaign funds.

Ironically, AFT was caught using that very maneuver to influence the outcome of Boston’s mayoral election in 2013. In the final weeks of the campaign, Marty Walsh, the long-time president of the local Laborers union, found himself in a tight race against city councilor John Connolly. Hoping to tip the scales in Walsh’s favor, AFT funneled $500,000 through One New Jersey – an out-of-state 501(c)(4) – to One Boston, a mysterious Massachusetts super PAC behind a last-minute blitz of pro-Walsh TV commercials.

Although Walsh went on to win, AFT was forced to admit it was behind the advertising scheme a month after the election. An OCPF investigation later found that One Boston and One New Jersey violated campaign finance laws. The two groups eventually agreed to a settlement in which they paid a $30,000 fine.

A year later, in December 2015, NEA suffered a similar embarrassment when an administrative court judge in Colorado ruled that Jeffco United, a 501(c)(4) behind an effort to recall three school board members in the state’s largest district, violated campaign finance laws by failing to register as a political action committee. When he ordered the organization to reveal its donor list, it showed that NEA and two of its affiliates had contributed $283,500 to Jeffco United, or about 99% of the total raised by the organization.

But the teachers unions’ forays into the realm of dark money are not limited to local elections. AFT and NEA have contributed to some of the biggest and most secretive liberal dark money groups in the country. The most prominent of these is Patriot Majority USA, a dark money group that spent over $30 million on political campaigns in 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity. While Patriot Majority USA is not required to disclose its donors, Department of Labor filings show that AFT and NEA have given at least $2 million to the organization since 2014.

Screenshot of Patriot Majority USA’s webpage.

AFT and NEA have also given at least $1.7 million to America Votes, another 501(c)(4) with deep pockets and close ties to the Democratic Party. America Votes refused to answer questions about its donors for an article published by Center for Public Integrity last year, but managing director Sara Schreiber did issue a statement that said: “As per its IRS designation as an issues-based advocacy organization, America Votes is not required to publicly disclose its donors.”

There are no innocents

Of course, none of this excuses Families For Excellent Schools-Advocacy’s actions during last year’s ballot question campaign in Massachusetts; there is never an excuse for violating the law. If anything, education reformers need to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard – even in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics – since the entrenched interests we’re battling are watching and waiting to pounce.

At the same time, the self-righteous posturing by the teachers unions and their allies over dark money deserves to be called out. The sad truth is that both sides of the education debate exploit the loopholes and gray areas in campaign finance law to their advantage, which over the long run only erodes people’s trust in our political system. The public begins to view the entire process as rigged in favor of shadowy, powerful interests and they stop believing that elected officials speak for them.

And when that happens, no one wins… except Donald Trump.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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