Be Careful What You Wish For Reformers Are Poised To Win A Majority On NOLA's School Board

For more than ten years, critics of the Recovery School District (RSD) have attempted to portray the state takeover of schools from the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) as an assault on democracy.

“RSD does what it chooses and does not have to answer to the public,” Rev. Dwight Webster complained to the Times-Picayune in 2013. “OPSB is elected by the people. There’s accountability. There’s redress.”

While critics never explained how the dysfunctional pre-Katrina school board reflected the “will of the people,” their message appealed to a simplistic, if widely-held and wholly American belief in the infallibility of the ballot box. As such, education reform opponents incessantly hammered the point when attacking the RSD. However, now that the RSD is finally preparing to return schools to local control, these same critics appear to have lost all interest in the democratic process.


Act 91, which Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law earlier this spring, establishes a plan for RSD to hand back control of schools to OPSB by July 1, 2018. That means the upcoming OPSB elections in November are an opportunity to elect board members who will soon govern a unified New Orleans public school system.

Yet when the qualifying period for the elections ended on July 22nd, the biggest surprise was that vocal reform opponents had not come out in force to run for the board’s seven seats. In fact, the contests drew only a handful of candidates.

Two incumbents – John Brown in District 1 and Sarah Usdin in District 3 – were reelected outright after they failed to draw opponents. Ben Kleban, founder of New Orleans College Prep, a network of charter schools in the city, was automatically elected to represent District 5 on Monday after his sole opponent dropped out of the race. Finally, long-time board member Cynthia Cade, a persistent critic of the city’s school reforms, was disqualified from running for reelection after failing to pay taxes for the past several years. As a result, her sole opponent, Ethan Ashley, a reform supporter who currently works for the Urban League, became the board’s representative for District 2 today.

From left: John Brown, Sarah Usdin, Ben Kleban, and Ethan Ashley.
From left: John Brown, Sarah Usdin, Ben Kleban, and Ethan Ashley.

Of the remaining three races, two are practically shoe-ins for the incumbents. In District 6, Woody Koppel, a reliable reform vote who’s been on OPSB since 2008, faces political newcomer David Alvarez. On the other side of town in District 7, Nolan Marshall, Jr., who is considered a “swing vote” on the board, faces two opponents: Kwame Smith, who Marshall soundly defeated in 2012 and another newcomer, Alvin Crusto, whose positions are unknown.

Which brings us to what might possibly be the most interesting school board contest this fall: The fight for District 4, which covers most of Algiers and a narrow strip on the East Bank extending from the French Quarter to Bywater. The district is currently represented by Leslie Ellison, whose term on the board has been marred by controversy, particularly in regard to her comments on gays and lesbians.

In March 2012, Ellison testified before the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee in Baton Rouge in support of a bill that would have allowed charter schools to discriminate against LGBT individuals. She subsequently insinuated that being gay or lesbian is a “choice” in a heated exchange with an openly gay colleague on the school board.



She also backed former OPSB president Ira Thomas’ effort to oust Interim Superintendent Stan Smith almost immediately after the current board took office. His coup ultimately failed and Thomas was eventually indicted on corruption charges last year.

Ellison will be facing off this fall against two candidates, neither of whom have run for office before: lawyer Moe Reed and Walter Umrani, a supervisor at Chevron and volunteer with the conflict-resolution group, New Orleans Peacekeepers.1

In any case, reformers appear poised to capture a majority of OPSB seats come November without much of a fight from those RSD opponents who spent the past decade demanding the return of schools. It suggests that at the end of the day, most New Orleanians are less worried about district governance than they are about ensuring that we build upon the success we’ve seen in our public schools.

Check out this OPSB Election Map

GREEN districts are held by pro-reform members; YELLOW districts are held by swing votes; RED are held by anti-reform members. Click on the map to learn more about the race in each district.

  1. CORRECTION: I previously said Moe Reed was the president of the New Orleans NAACP, but that was actually his father, Morris Reed. My apologies for the mistake. 

Written by Peter Cook

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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