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Don’t Give Prejudice A Pass Leslie Ellison's Anti-LGBT Views Make Her Unfit To Lead Our School Board

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This Thursday, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) will vote to elect a new leader.

OPSB District 1 representative John Brown, who has served as board president for the past two years, cannot run for re-election due to term limits. As a result, members have been engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions in recent weeks to decide who will assume the board’s top post.

The current members of the Orleans Parish School Board, including Leslie Ellison (third from left).

According to sources privy to those conversations, Leslie Ellison, who represents District 4 and currently serves as the board’s vice-president, has emerged as a leading contender to replace Brown at the helm. However, given her history of homophobic remarks and her retrograde positions on LGBT rights, electing Ellison as OPSB president would be completely unacceptable.

A history of homophobia

Ellison’s anti-LGBT views are well-documented and stretch back to at least 2004 when she organized a rally at the state capitol in Baton Rouge to oppose a series of bills that would have extended discrimination protections to gay and lesbian citizens.

According to an article in The Advocate, Ellison organized the gathering at the behest of Apostle Willie Wooten, the founder of Gideon Christian Fellowship in Gentilly, where she attends church and works as an administrator. Wooten has drawn national attention for his homophobic beliefs and has said that homosexuality is “deviant” and “too nasty.” He has also been an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, arguing that same-sex marriage would open the door to the legalization of polygamy and incest.

Thanks to the efforts of Ellison and Wooten, all four of the bills in question eventually went down in defeat.

Ellison and Apostle Willie Wooten (above) organized a 2004 rally in Baton Rouge against a series of bills that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A few years later, in 2012, Ellison was back at the state capitol to testify in support of a bill that would have allowed charter schools to discriminate against LGBT students, employees, and service providers. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

In an appearance before the Senate Labor and Industrial Committee, Ellison, who at the time was board chair of the now-defunct Milestone-SABIS charter school, told lawmakers that she refused to sign a charter renewal contract with the Louisiana Department of Education because it included a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But the ugliness of Ellison’s prejudice was most clearly revealed in a caustic exchange with fellow board member Seth Bloom during an OPSB meeting the following year.

As the board prepared to vote on a series of updates to the district’s anti-bullying policy, which specifically included protections for gay and lesbian students, Ellison offered an amendment that would have stripped that language from the document.

Bloom, who is gay, reacted to her motion by saying, “I just find it perplexing that certain minorities seek protection for certain minorities but not for others.” To which Ellison snapped back: “This has nothing to do with being black. I can’t change my blackness at all.”

Ellison insinuated that being gay or lesbian is a matter of personal choice in a nasty exchange with fellow board member Seth Bloom.

Ellison’s insinuation that being gay or lesbian is a matter of personal choice – an idea that neither science nor logic supports – drew audible gasps from the audience. Nevertheless, she didn’t stop there. Ellison also tried to block a requirement that schools integrate the board’s anti-bullying guidelines with their curriculum and disciplinary policies. In explaining her position, Ellison made the absurd assertion that it would force schools to teach 5 year-olds about gay sex (it didn’t and hasn’t).

OPSB needs to send the right message

Although Ellison hasn’t had the opportunity to publicly weigh-in on these issues in the past few years, there is no reason to believe her views have radically changed. According to campaign finance reports filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Ellison’s failed 2015 state senate campaign willingly accepted $2000 in contributions from the Family Resource Council, a D.C.-based activist group that opposes equal rights for LGBT citizens, promotes the thoroughly-debunked practice of “gay conversion therapy,” and is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In light of these facts, it’s hard to understand why so many members of the Orleans Parish School Board are apparently willing to consider Ellison for president. After all, had Ellison made racist or anti-semitic remarks, her bid for school board president would be a non-starter. So why would prejudice be OK when it comes to gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals?

It’s a question worth asking. As WWNO’s Jess Clark reported just this past week, GLSEN (formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) released the results of a national survey of LGBT students that illustrates the tragic impact that prejudice has in their lives. In Louisiana, the statistics were particularly disturbing: nearly 80% of LGBT students reported they were verbally harassed at school due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, 32% had heard school staff make homophobic remarks, and nearly 20% were victims of physical assault.

Graphic from GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey.

If Ellison is elected board president, the board will be sending a message to these kids, who struggle with hatred everyday, that homophobia is fine and their basic rights and dignity as LGBT individuals doesn’t really matter.

I hope that’s something our school board members keep in mind before they cast their votes this week.

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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OPSB

Hynes Board May Have Violated State Ethics Laws Two UNO Employees On The Board Failed To Recuse Themselves From Hynes-UNO Partnership Votes

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A review of records of the board of directors of Hynes Charter School has revealed that two board members may have violated state ethics laws by failing to recuse themselves from votes on the school’s partnership with the University of New Orleans (UNO) to open a new K-8 campus.

The board members in question, Janice Janz and Helene Derbigny, are both employees of UNO. Janz is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice in the department of Education and Human Development. Derbigny is a Teacher in Residence in Curriculum and Instruction and coordinates the university’s student teaching program.

As the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools explains in an overview of state ethics laws regarding conflicts-of-interest, charter school board members are prohibited from participating in any transaction between the school and their employer, meaning that they must recuse themselves from votes on those transactions.

A flyer from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools explains the laws regarding the conflicts-of-interest of charter board members.

Nevertheless, minutes from Hynes board meetings stretching all the way back to December 2017 show that Janz and Derbigny repeatedly failed to recuse themselves from votes on agenda items involving the Hynes-UNO partnership and therefore likely violated state law.

Here’s a breakdown of each instance in which Janz and/or Derbigny failed to recuse themselves due to a conflict-of-interest:

Hynes Board Meeting: December 4, 2017

At the December 2017 meeting of the Hynes board, members were asked to approve a “conceptual framework of replicating Hynes Charter School on the campus of the University of New Orleans.” Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas made a presentation to the board in which she outlined the benefits for the UNO, which included “expanded research and observation opportunities with elementary students” for “next generation teachers.”

According to minutes from this meeting, both Janz and Derbigny were present and voted to “approve and allow Prinicpal Douglas to pursue the opportunity further.”

Hynes Board Meeting: February 26, 2018

At their February 2018 meeting, Hynes board members were asked to vote on a resolution to approve the submission of a packet of “intent to replicate” documents to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) for the new Hynes-UNO campus.

According to minutes from this meeting, both Janz and Derbigny voted to approve the resolution to allow Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas to submit the packet to OPSB.

Hynes Board Meeting: August 6, 2018

The August 2018 meeting of the Hynes board meeting was particularly interesting (and by that I mean, unintentionally hilarious).

Minutes from the meeting show that Janz and Derbigny once again failed to recuse themselves from voting to approve an agreement between the school and UNO. In this case, it was a letter of intent (seen below) with university to pursue a long-term lease to property on UNO’s Lakefront Campus where they would construct a new facility to house the new Hynes-UNO expansion school.

At the same meeting, the board also was asked to approve and submit a “Board Governance Assurance Form” to OPSB, in which the board acknowledged its responsibility to comply with state laws and policies on charter school management and affirmed that each board member had completed a one-hour ethics training course offered by the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

Ironically, just minutes after they most likely violated state ethics laws, Janice Janz offered a motion to authorize the board chair to complete and sign the Board Governance Assurance Form, which was seconded by Helene Derbigny.

Hynes Board Meeting: October 29, 2018

Although Helene Derbigny did not attend the October 2018 meeting of the Hynes board, Janz voted to approve a motion allowing Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas to officially open the new Hynes-UNO school, beginning with three kindergarten classes, in the fall of 2019.

According to minutes from the meeting, the vote followed a series of presentations on various aspects of the replication plan, including one from Adams & Reese attorney Lee Reid, who explained that the children of UNO employees would receive an enrollment preference at the new campus.

Unfortunately, Reid didn’t draw on his knowledge of the law to advise Janz to recuse herself from the vote due to her clear conflict-of-interest.

Hynes Board Meeting: January 14, 2019

Minutes from the January 2019 meeting of the Hynes board indicate that Helene Derbigny was once again absent. However, that didn’t stop her colleague, Janice Janz, from voting to approve a memorandum of understanding with UNO, which detailed the roles and responsibilities of both parties in opening the new Hynes expansion school.

Process and perceptions matter

As I detailed in my previous post on this issue, there has been a concerted effort by officials of both Hynes and OPSB to avoid public scrutiny and discussion of the plan to give the children of UNO employees an edge in the admissions process at the new Hynes campus.

When asked directly about the admissions agreement by WWL’s Caresse Jackman, Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas straight-up lied, claiming that discussions with UNO were in the preliminary stages, when in fact they had already concluded an agreement.

When OPSB officials announced that a new Hynes campus was opening last fall, they assiduously avoided mentioning that an admissions preference was part of the deal (and documents show they had been in discussions with Hynes about it since early 2018). In fact, the first time district officials acknowledged they were planning to allow Hynes to give preference to children of UNO employees was at OPSB’s Accountability Committee meeting on Tuesday. (Nevertheless, in an unanimous vote, the committee advanced the plan for consideration by the full board this Thursday.)

Now comes the question of whether members of Hynes’ board violated state ethics laws in approving this partnership with UNO. When combined with the lying and overall lack of transparency, the whole thing looks shady. If OPSB approves this plan nonetheless, they may make folks at UNO and Hynes happy, but they will further erode the trust and goodwill of the citizens they serve, many of whom (with good reason) already believe that the system is rigged. They will also give added credibility to the malcontents and paid activists who appear at every OPSB meeting to spout lies and conspiracy theories and harangue the board.

If OPSB is truly committed to equity, transparency, and good governance, they should hit the pause button on this plan, stop making exceptions to the rules we have in place, and engage with the community in an open and honest fashion.

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OPSB

Silence, Obfuscation & Lies A Backroom Deal Raises Serious Questions About OPSB's Commitment to Equity & Transparency

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When it was announced last November that Hynes Charter School would be partnering with the University of New Orleans (UNO) to open a new K-8 campus in fall of 2019, district officials portrayed the move as part of their broader mission to expand access to the city’s highest-performing schools.

“We are very thankful to see this partnership come to fruition as a way to expand our high-performing schools to other families in the city,” Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) Supt. Henderson Lewis said in a statement on the expansion. “Not only will this partnership help us achieve our goal of increasing the number of students attending ‘A’ and ‘B’ schools, but it will also give our students an incentive to strive in higher education.”

But what Lewis never mentioned is that the children of UNO employees will be granted an enrollment preference at the new school, meaning that the University of New Orleans will be given open seats at one of the city’s most sought-after public schools to use as a perk for current and prospective faculty members.

Edward Hynes Charter School, an A-rated public school in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, is one of the most sought-after schools in the city.

In fact, officials from both OPSB and Hynes have conspicuously avoided any discussion of the admissions preference plan, most likely because they know that many community members (myself included) would view this arrangement as a betrayal of the district’s professed commitment to provide equitable access to schools. Instead, they’ve apparently decided to pursue a strategy of silence and obfuscation in the hopes that the deal between Hynes and UNO would fly under-the-radar.

And for a while, at least, the approach seemed to work. Local news stories on the Hynes expansion announcement were uniformly positive, echoing the message that the new campus would open up more seats for families seeking a spot at the A-rated school. Meanwhile, none of the coverage addressed the fact that the children of UNO employees would be given an edge in the admissions process, as reporters were kept in-the-dark about the plan.

The full story only recently came to light thanks to reporting from WWL’s Caresse Jackman, who learned about the admissions preference after UNO administrators sent out an email in late-January to faculty and staff which said that children of university employees who live in Orleans Parish would be given priority in enrolling at the new school.

In a statement to WWL, Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas acknowledged the school was discussing a possible enrollment preference with UNO, but insisted those conversations were still in their early stages:

“Hynes is exploring the possibility of a community partnership with the University of New Orleans in the opening of our new school, which includes locating our facility on UNO’s Campus. We are in the preliminary stages of planning and will follow the letter of law allowed in all aspects of the partnership. We will provide information to the public as soon as we are able.”

Hynes CEO Michelle Douglas acknowledged her school was in discussions about an enrollment preference for UNO employees but insisted the plan was still in the “preliminary stages.”

Truth vs. Lies

However, internal UNO documents, which I obtained through a public records request, show that Douglas’ statement to WWL was a lie. (It should also be noted that she is currently slow-walking a public records request that I submitted to Hynes.)

While Douglas maintained that plans with UNO were still in the “preliminary stages,” these documents show that Hynes had already finalized a partnership agreement with the University of New Orleans.

On January 25th – the day after Jackman’s story aired on WWL – UNO president John Wicklow sent a letter to the head of the Board of Supervisors of the University of Louisiana System (of which UNO is a part) requesting approval of an memorandum of understanding with Hynes. In the attached M.O.U., Hynes agreed to give “a fifteen (15%) percent enrollment preference for dependent children of permanent employees of UNO.” In exchange, the university would grant Hynes a long-term lease (at a cost of $1 per year) for a parcel of land on their Lakefront Campus where the new school will ultimately reside.

Other public records make clear that an admissions priority for UNO employees was part of the plan from the very beginning. In September 2017, more than a year before the Hynes expansion was officially announced, a “Feasibility and Concept Analysis” of the UNO-Hynes partnership was developed for the university by Dr. Rose Drill-Peterson. In her report, Drill-Peterson suggested that UNO and Hynes seek an enrollment preference for children of UNO employees, as well as a preference for families residing within the 70122 zip code.

Later, under a section entitled “Political Threats and Challenges,” Drill-Peterson warned that there “could be some backlash” from education leaders and activists against an enrollment preference, but ultimately points out “it could serve as a major benefit for UNO employees.”

Finally, in her conclusion, Drill-Peterson listed a series of next steps for UNO and Hynes officials to pursue, including the recommendation that “discussions with EnrollNOLA [which oversees OneApp] and the Orleans Parish School Board should occur to determine if the focus can be on a community school with 70122 zip-code-preference as well as a preference for the dependents of UNO faculty and staff.”

The Complicity of OPSB

According to a source at OPSB, Hynes and UNO officials were able to get district officials to agree to an enrollment preference in which 15% of the available seats at the new Hynes campus will be set aside each year for the children of full-time UNO employees. This means that about 12 of the 75 open seats available for the first kindergarten class this fall will already be off-the-table.

There isn’t any mention of the UNO admissions preference on the EnrollNOLA website.

Nevertheless, you wouldn’t know this from looking at the information available about the new school’s admissions process on the EnrollNOLA website. Perhaps that’s because they’re waiting for the U of L board to officially approve the Hynes-UNO agreement, which is scheduled for a vote next Friday, February 22nd (which also happens to be the last day to submit an application through OneApp).

The U of L Board of Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the Hynes-UNO M.O.U. on February 22nd.

But here’s the kicker: My source tells me that Supt. Lewis, who believes he has the authority to unilaterally approve the admissions preference deal, won’t be presenting it for approval by the school board – i.e., there won’t be an opportunity for public debate and public input on the plan.

UNO employees will get priority in kindergarten enrollment at Hynes in exchange for a parcel of land on their Lakefront campus.

OPSB already allows Hynes to game the system

Furthermore, OPSB has already allowed Hynes tip the scales in its favor in other ways.

While district officials describe Hynes as one of the highest performing open-enrollment schools in the city, the reality is a bit more complicated. To start, the school has a free pre-K program, but it’s only open to gifted and talented students, which means the three and four year-olds seeking a spot must earn a high score on an “an individually administered test of intellectual abilities.” This also means it pretty much eliminates Hynes’ pre-k program as an option for low-income families. One added benefit of gaining entry to Hynes’ elite pre-K program is that those students are guaranteed a spot in kindergarten and you can be certain that nearly all of the families with kids in the pre-K program take Hynes up on the offer.

Not only are these preschoolers cute, but they’re smart, too.

For those families who can’t get their children into Hynes’ pre-K program, snagging an open kindergarten seat is pretty much the only chance they have to get into the school, as very few seats open up in subsequent grades. Still, a confluence of factors end up keeping most low-income families out.

First of all, certain students get priority in enrollment, such as siblings of students currently attending Hynes. OneApp then sets aside 25% of available seats for applicants who reside within a half-mile of the school and up to 42% of available seats for students who reside in the 70124 zip code.

However, this zip code preference is unique to Hynes. OneApp generally sets aside 25% of the available seats for students within a half mile of the school and another 25% for students who live within the school’s geographic zone. So when OneApp assigns students to Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers, for example, 25% of the available seats will go to applicants within a half mile of the school and another 25% will go to children who live in Zone VII (in purple in the map below). The rest of the seats will go to children from across the city.

OneApp uses its seven geographic zones in assigning students to schools, but not in the case of Hynes.

Yet when Hynes finally joined OneApp in 2017, OPSB allowed them (again, without any public debate on the matter) to opt-out of geographic zone system (they are in Zone V in blue above) and instead agreed to set aside seats for students within their zip code. And because Hynes is located in Lakeview, one of the wealthier areas of city, the students who end up in those spots tend to be whiter and more affluent than the city as a whole.

As a result, Hynes students look drastically different than those of just about every other open-enrollment school in the city. According data compiled by the Louisiana Department of Education, only 32% of Hynes’ current students are low-income, as opposed to 84% of public school students in the city as a whole. Moreover, while the 82% of the students in New Orleans public schools are African-American, only 35% of the students enrolled at Hynes are black.1

OPSB has an equity and transparency problem

Back in 2016, I wrote an article for The 74 in which I looked at why some members of the education community were wary about the return to local control. One of the main reasons was that OPSB had been slow to embrace the policies that the Recovery School District had established to promote equity, such as OneApp, the city’s unified enrollment system.

As former New Schools for New Orleans co-CEO Michael Stone explained in an interview for the piece:

“The RSD has not only demonstrated a commitment to providing equitable access to schools, but has continually looked for the next intervention that will meet the needs of the most vulnerable kids in our city… OPSB has either been apathetic about those issues or was brought into those conversations kicking and screaming.”

Given what we now know about backroom admissions deal between Hynes and UNO, those concerns about OPSB’s commitment to equity appear to be justified. The district is trying to surreptitiously ram through an admissions preference at a public school, funded by taxpayers and nominally open-enrollment, without any public scrutiny or debate.

If this is the way OPSB is going to operate, it doesn’t bode well for the future of public education in New Orleans.


  1. To look at it another way: Hynes alone enrolls almost 11% of the district’s white students, even thought there are approximately 80 public schools across the city. 
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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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