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.
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.
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’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.
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.
Red Flags Everywhere A review of documents from Smothers Academy raises serious questions about its management practices
A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.
Last month, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) officials unveiled a plan to phase out operations at McDonogh #35 Senior High School, the first high school established for African-American students in New Orleans, and reopen the school under a bizarre non-charter private management scheme.
At the same time, the district issued two requests for proposals: one for an organization that would manage the school during the phase-out period, and another for an organization that would restart the school beginning with 9th grade and adding subsequent grades over four years.
Smothers Academy, Inc., the non-profit behind Smothers Academy Preparatory School, an all-boys charter school in Old Jefferson, was the only organization to submit an application to serve as the long-term operator of McDonogh #35.
Smothers Academy was granted a Type 2 charter by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) in 2016, after being denied charters by the Jefferson Parish School Board in 2015 and OPSB in 2013. Damon Smothers, CEO and founder of Smothers Academy, also previously applied to open a charter school in Bakersfield, CA in 2009, but later withdrew that application.
Smothers Academy is one of the few charter schools in Louisiana that uses corporal punishment to discipline students.1 According to a student handbook posted on their website, Smothers Academy administrators use a wooden paddle to met out corporal punishment to students, although parents can opt-out of paddling in writing.
According to its annual school report card from the Louisiana Department of Education, Smothers Academy struggled in its first year. Overall, the school received a “F” grade with less than 10% of students scoring “Mastery” or above or the state standardized tests.
In spite of these challenges, the charter organization believes it is prepared to serve as the long-term operator of McDonogh #35. Their proposal to OPSB outlines a plan to reinstate selective admissions requirements at the school, which the school board dropped following Hurricane Katrina. It also emphasizes the ties that three of the proposed founders – Damon Smothers, Kemic Smothers, and Averil Sanders, Jr. – have to the school as alumni of McDonogh #35.
Red Flag: Nepotism
However their proposal to OPSB also reveals that Smothers Academy is likely in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism.
According to the leadership team resumes included with their proposal, as well as information posted on Smothers Academy’s website, CEO Damon Smothers has hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, to serve as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement.
Louisiana law explicitly prohibits the chief executive or administrative officer of a government agency – which includes charter schools – from hiring an immediate family member to serve in any capacity in that agency. How Smothers Academy has been able to operate for so long with this arrangement is unclear, but it raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of the organization.
Red Flags: A Troubling Audit
Smothers Academy’s proposal to OPSB also claims that they have successfully managed the financial reporting requirements of their current charter in Jefferson Parish, proving that they “are financially viable, [and] have the educational acumen and financial integrity to be the long-term entity to operate McDonogh 35 Senior High School.”
Yet a review of their most recent audited financial statements, covering the 2016-2017 fiscal year, actually surfaced several worrisome findings that undermine their self-declared financial integrity.
The audit, which was conducted by Luther Speight & Company, a local accounting firm, uncovered material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in the organization’s internal controls that presented a “reasonable possibility” that their financial statements were incorrect.
In the most serious of these findings, Smothers Academy was unable to account for $33,480 that was missing from their bank account.
Auditors also discovered that Smothers Academy administrators had spent $9,376 on the organization’s credit card for what appeared to be personal expenses, including alcoholic beverages, which is prohibited by Louisiana law. In addition, school administrators never provided the accountants with credit card statements to validate those purchases.
Moreover, it is questionable whether the school complied with the state’s open meetings laws. Administrators did not provide minutes from the charter’s board meetings and auditors could not find evidence of those meetings on the school’s website. The school subsequently dug up minutes for some, but not all of the board meetings they claimed to have held.
Finally, auditors uncovered a series of problems with Smothers Academy’s payroll and personnel management. In some cases, the amounts paid to employees differed from what they should have been paid. The files of many employees also lacked required documentation. According to the audit, “vital records, such as employment contracts, documentation in change in pay, sick and vacation leave documentation, signed experience verification forms, and background check information were missing from multiple personnel files.”
Time to rethink the plan for McDonogh #35
Taken together, these problems should almost certainly disqualify Smothers Academy from taking over the management of McDonogh #35 over the long term. Furthermore, given the fact that they were only organization to apply to run McDonogh #35, perhaps it is time for OPSB officials to rethink their plan.
From the beginning, the district’s plan to hand over McDonogh #35 to non-charter private management struck many observers as odd to say the least. Some suggested that it was an attempt to reinstate selective admissions criteria at the school. Others claimed that it would give the school more “flexibility” than it would otherwise have under the strict accountability requirements established for charters.
Whatever the motivation, no one was fooled into believing that the plan was anything other than a sneaky way to circumvent the rules and performance expectations that we’ve established for schools in this city.
We’re about to officially reunify the school system for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, a step that has not only demanded planning and coordination, but required that the education community put its trust in those who will lead the unified district going forward. The fact that OPSB officials would pursue such a backhanded scheme for McDonogh #35 has only diminished that sense of trust.
If OPSB’s leaders want to repair their standing among local school leaders and advocates, they should take this opportunity to jettison their plan for McDonogh #35 and commit to either running the school directly under new leadership, or finding a qualified operator to run the school as a charter. Anything else would be a betrayal of the principles guiding the reunification and the students and families that the school system serves.
- Actually, I’m unaware of any Louisiana charter schools that use corporal punishment other than Smothers Academy. ↩
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 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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