An impeachment trial… The coronavirus pandemic… An ensuing economic crisis… Remote working… Remote schooling… Nationwide protests demanding racial justice… Several near-misses – and one direct hit – by hurricanes… An angry and chaotic presidential election…
It’s fair to say that 2020 has been an anxiety-inducing, rollercoaster of a year and it somehow isn’t even over yet. With so many crazy things happening over the past ten months, it’s understandable if you haven’t been playing close attention to the upcoming school board elections. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking the time to learn about the candidates since all seven seats on the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) are up for grabs on Tuesday, November 3rd. We need to elect strong board members who will work together to navigate the district through the multitude of challenges it will face in the coming months and years.
Below, I’ve provided an overview of the candidates in each of the seven races as well as my personal recommendations. But first, if you are unsure of the OPSB district in which you live, you can use the map below to determine your district by entering your address in the search bar.
With those logistics out of the way, let’s now turn to the seven OPSB races. Please note that the incumbent candidates are marked (I) in the descriptions below. Finally, in case you’re wondering why I don’t indicate the party identifications of the candidates, all but one (Phil Brickman, a GOP candidate in District 3) are Democrats.
There are two candidates running to represent District 1, which encompasses most of New Orleans East (except for a small area surrounding Lakefront Airport), as well as the Lower Ninth Ward. There are two candidates running in District 1: John Brown and Patrice Sentino.
John Brown (I)
John Brown has represented District 1 since 2015, when he was appointed by OPSB to replace Ira Thomas, who resigned after being indicted on federal bribery charges. He was subsequently elected to the seat in his own right in 2016. Born and raised in New Orleans, Brown was an educator in the city’s public schools for more than thirty years before retiring in 2003.
Brown has brought his wealth of experience to his role on OPSB, where he has built a reputation for moderation, fairness, and consensus-building. This perhaps explains why Brown’s colleagues selected him to serve as Board President in two out of the past four years. It also explains why he has been endorsed by a broad array of civic and political groups in the city.
Patrice Sentino is a social worker and the CEO of Hope Children & Family Services, LLC, a private behavioral health clinic in New Orleans East. In interviews and candidate questionnaires, she has emphased her background in social work, saying that she would push to expand the adoption of trauma-informed teaching and social-emotional learning practices in the city’s public schools.
At the same time, Sentino has also signaled some hostility toward our education system. She does not support the continued implementation of Act 91, the law which returned the city’s schools from state to local control (a curious position since repealing the law would vastly diminish OPSB’s power). Sentino has also repeatedly claimed that there has been a “mass push-out” of students with special needs from the city’s public schools, an assertion that is often made by anti-charter activists, even though it simply isn’t backed by facts.
Sentino has raised an impressive sum of money – over $34,000 – so far, although more than half of that amount comes from a $17,500 loan Sentino made to her own campaign. Another $4,500 comes from immediate family members or the businesses they own. She has received the endorsements of the Independent Women’s Organization of New Orleans (IWO), and strangely enough, the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee.
Recommendation: John Brown
Brown has dedicated his life to the education of the city’s children and has brought much-needed leadership to the school board over the past five years. For those reasons alone he deserves another term (which he has indicated will be his last). There is nothing to suggest that Sentino, who has little direct experience in K-12 education and has misguided views about the governance of the district, would be a worthwhile replacement.
District 2 covers a wedge of the city between Elysian Fields and the Industrial Canal, stretching from St. Claude Avenue to the lake. It also includes a few neighborhoods east of the canal around Lakefront Airport, such as Seabrook, Pine Village, and West Lake. There are five candidates on the ballet in District 2: Ethan Ashley, Asya Howlette, Eric “Doc” Jones, Aldine Lockett, and Chanel Payne.
Ethan Ashley (I)
Ethan Ashley has represented District 2 on OPSB since 2016 and currently serves as board president. Originally from Los Angeles, Ashley moved to New Orleans after law school to work with the Juvenile Justice Project (now the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights) and now serves as Director of State and Local Advocacy at the Anti-Defamation League.
Ashley has touted his leadership as board president over the past ten months, pointing to the $5 million emergency fund that OPSB established in March to faciliate remote learning. If reelected, he wants to expand early childhood education, bolster mental health services for students, and improve teacher retention. He will also work with state lawmakers to avoid school funding cuts caused by the pandemic.
I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Ashley for his role in sneakily extending the contract of Superintendent Henderson Lewis earlier this spring. Although Ashley framed the move as a means of providing stability for the district amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in reality the board took advantage of the disruption caused by pandemic to ram through Lewis’ contract extension. At the very least, OPSB should have conducted a formal performance evaluation and solicited feedback from the public before offering Lewis an extension.
Asya Howlette is a teacher and assistant principal at Success at Thurgood Marshall in Mid-City. Originally from Colorado, Howlette is running because she believes that OPSB needs the perspective of someone with actual experience working in the city’s public schools.
But therein lies the rub. In a recent conversation, Howlette told me that she planned on staying in her role at Success at Thurgood Marshall if elected. Not only would this pose a clear conflict-of-interest (i.e., serving on the board that authorizes her charter school), but it would almost certainly violate state law.
If Howlette assumed office while employed at Success, it would inevitably be challenged in court, most likely resulting in her removal from office and the appointment of a replacement until a new election could be held. In short, the voters of District 2 could find themselves trudging back to the polling booth again to vote for their school board member in the next twelve months.
Eric “Doc” Jones
Eric “Doc” Jones is an former educator-cum-snake oil salesman with mixed motives and a history of questionable conduct involving schools.
Last year, Jones was forced to resign from the board of directors of Mary D. Coghill Charter School after a district investigation uncovered that he had been illegally reimbursed by the school for purchases that violated state and federal law. Jones also told Coghill teachers that they could not give students failing grades, even though board members have no direct authority over school employees.
At the time, a former Coghill board member told The Lens that Jones had been “running amok” at the school for months, while others revealed that Jones was in a romantic relationship with Coghill’s principal, Rayven Calloway, which just made a messy situation even messier.
It should go without saying that we need OPSB board members with sound ethical judgment who can keep their personal and professional lives separate. Therefore, voters in District 2 should steer clear of Jones.
Although Aldine Lockett’s name is officially on the ballot, he does not appear to be actively campaigning for the District 2 seat. According to a campaign finance report filed (17 days late) with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, he has neither raised nor spent any money since qualifying to run in July (although he technically should have reported the $330 he spent on qualifying fees). Given that his campaign is in a state of suspended animation, let’s just move on to the next candidate.
Chanel Payne is a former public school teacher who currently works as a consultant providing professional development and tutoring services. She is backed by the United Teachers of New Orleans.
Although Payne describes herself as a “highly qualified and successful educator,” a résumé she submitted in March with her application for State Superintendent of Education lists several accomplishments that appear to be misleading at best. Payne said that as lead 3rd grade math teacher at Joseph A. Craig Charter School between July 2012 and September 2014, the percentage of students scoring a “Basic” or above on the 3rd grade iLEAP rose from 21% to 71% in math and from 19% to 61% in English/Language Arts. However, official test results from LDOE show that 3rd grade iLEAP scores actually fell during Payne’s time at Craig. Between 2013 and 2014, the percentage of 3rd graders scoring “Basic” or above in math plummeted from 71% to 35%, while the percentage in ELA went from 61% to 51%.
Her résumé also notes that as an assistant principal at James Singleton Charter School between January 2018 and June 2019, she led the school’s special education team in implementing a state-mandated corrective action plan. However, her work on that corrective action plan seems to have needed its own corrective action plan. As reported by The Lens in March 2019, Singleton was sanctioned three separate times by the district for violating special education laws while Payne was supposedly improving SPED services.
Recommendation: Ethan Ashley
Howlette is a talented educator with a bright future, but her insistance on staying in her current role at Thurgood Marshall would create a clear conflict-of-interest. While I was disappointed by the way Ethan Ashley dealt with Henderson Lewis’ contract, he has otherwise been a solid member of the school board. Hopefully he won’t make the same mistake in the future.
District 3 covers an area extending from Mid-City to the lake and includes many of the neighborhoods surrounding City Park, such as Faubourg St. John, Lakeview, Lake Terrace, Gentilly, and Milneburg. In July, Sarah Usdin, who has represented the district for the past eight years, announced she would not seek reelection. There are two candidates vying to replace her: Phil Brickman and Olin Parker.
Phil Brickman is a life-long New Orleanian, graduate of Tulane Law School, practicing attorney, and public school parent. He is also the sole Republican running for school board, a fact that makes his candidacy a bit of an enigma. I say this because I assume Brickman knows that running as a Republican automatically puts him at a disadvantage in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. This holds true even in District 3, which includes the GOP-leaning neighborhood of Lakeview, but otherwise trends solidly, if not deeply blue.
In any case, most of Brickman’s positions would garner support from both sides of the aisle. He wants to expand early childhood education, replicate high-quality charter schools, and increase supports for students with special needs. But Brickman also wants to see an expansion of the state’s voucher program and that’s where the feel-good bipartisan vibe ends. It is strange that someone running for school board would want the state to steer more money to private schools, particularly at a time when public education could be facing a pandemic-related funding shortfall. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that the voucher program hasn’t worked.
Olin Parker is a former mathematics teacher and the father of three New Orleans public school students. He most recently served as the executive director for charter school accountability at the Louisiana Department of Education, although he resigned from that role in anticipation of running for OPSB.
As a school board member, Parker says he would work to increase the number of high-performing charter schools, expand access to mental health services and Career & Technical Education opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, develop a long-term financial plan for the district that accounts for the economic and fiscal downturn caused by the pandemic.
Recommendation: Olin Parker
This is an easy choice. Parker is an educator who formerly oversaw charter school accountability for the entire State of Louisiana. It’s hard to think of someone better qualified to serve on a school board overseeing a system of charter schools.
District 4 has easily the most tortured and non-sensical boundaries of the city’s seven school board districts. It encompasses all but a small part of Algiers, along with Faubourg Marigny, Bywater, and about one-third of the French Quarter. There are three candidates running in District 4: Leslie Ellison, J.C. Romero, and Winston “Boom” Whitten.
Leslie Ellison (I)
Leslie Ellison is a church administrator and real estate agent who has represented District 4 for the past eight years. In her first term, she allied herself with then-OPSB president Ira Thomas, whose race-baiting and bullying caused chaos until he was indicted and pled guilty to federal corruption charges in 2015. To her credit, Ellison subsequently emerged as a far more collaborative and responsible board member and has generally been on the right side of important votes.
Unfortunately, Ellison has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I noted in a post last year, not only has she made insensitive and homophobic remarks during her time on OPSB, but she has actively opposed efforts to provide protections for members of the LGBTQ community. Ellison has had numerous opportunities to clarify (or better yet, renounce) her past statements. In fact, I’m told that potential supporters urged her to do exactly that in the early stages of her reelection campaign. Instead, Ellison has chosen to avoid the issue. As a result, one can only assume her views haven’t changed.
Born and raised in New Orleans, J.C. Romero has spent his career in education as a teacher, school administrator, and currently as chief-of-staff for Einstein Charter Schools. (In a conversation on Twitter, he told me that he planned to resign from his role at Einstein if elected to avoid a conflict-of-interest.) He has a doctorate in education from the University of Missouri at St. Louis and serves on the board of directors of the Living School, an alternative charter high school in New Orleans East.
Like other candidates, Romero wants to increase the number of high-quality school options and expand mental health and special education services. Unlike other candidates, Romero told the Times-Picayune that he wants the incoming board to conduct a formal performance evaluation of Superintendent Henderson Lewis and develop a succession plan to ensure that any future leadership transition goes as smoothly as possible.
Over the course of his campaign, Romero has sought to draw a clear contrast with incumbent Leslie Ellison by emphasizing his belief that schools should foster the “self confidence and safety of students of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities.” He has been endorsed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, City Council Members Helena Moreno and Kristen Palmer, The Gambit Weekly, and the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, among others.
Winston “Boom” Whitten
Winston “Boom” Whitten is a former educator running on a slate of candidates backed by the Erase The Board Coalition, the small, anti-charter, anti-reform group whose idea of political persuasion involves online trash-talking, incessant lying, and disrupting school board meetings.
Like Erase The Board, Whitten wants to completely dismantle our school system by getting rid of charters, forcing families to send their children to neighborhood schools, and restoring the power of the teachers union. His campaign website literally says he wants to ensure that schools cannot operate autonomously.
While Erase The Board claims to represent the community, Whitten’s campaign finance reports (both submitted late) tell another story. Of the $7300 his campaign has raised, approximately $2700 came from donors in New Orleans and only $965 came from donors in his district.
Recommendation: J.C. Romero
There is no place on the school board for someone who has opposed equal rights and protections for members of the LGBTQ community. Not only is J.C. Romero the most qualified candidate in the District 2 race, he will be an advocate for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
District 5 covers a large swath of Uptown, extending from the Warehouse District to Jefferson Avenue and from Broadmoor to the river. The district was previously represented by Ben Kleban, who resigned from the board due to family obligations on June 15th. As a result, OPSB appointed Grisela Jackson to serve out the final six months of Kleban’s term. Jackson, who is running to remain on the board, faces two challengers: Katherine Baudouin and Antoinette Williams.
Grisela Jackson was appointed by OPSB to represent District 5 in June of this year. She is the co-owner and Chief Financial Officer of the Young Engineering Company, a distributor of military-grade marine electrical equipment.
Jackson has been involved in public education in the city over the past fifteen years, first as a board member for Lawrence D. Crocker Elementary and later as a board member of New Orleans College Prep.
In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Jackson said she would “work to free charters of the burdens that have long plagued their budgets, such as transportation and food service costs.” On the other hand, it’s not exactly clear that schools are begging for someone to take these so-called burdens off their plate.
Katherine Baudouin is a parent of two New Orleans public school students who most recently worked as an aide to City Councilman Joe Giarrusso. She previously worked to expand Medicaid eligibility and enrollment at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
Baudouin is running to provide a voice for parents on the board. If elected, Baudouin will work to ensure that OPSB does a better job communicating with parents and other stakeholders. (Maybe they can start by holding committee meetings when the public can actually attend them?)
Baudouin also wants to expand mental health services for students, strengthen partnerships between schools and early childhood programs, and encourage more collaboration among charters.
Another member of the Erase The Board slate, Antoinette Williams stands out among the field of candidates for being the only person running who isn’t actually out-of-school yet. Williams is currently a senior at Xavier University and is expected to graduate in December.
Strangely enough, Williams went missing for several days in February before apparently reemerging with the goal of running for public office. Williams says she wants to be a voice for students on the school board, but otherwise her platform lacks much in the way of specifics, as might be expected from someone with little experience in either education or politics.
Nevertheless, her lack of experience doesn’t seem to phase the United Teachers of New Orleans, which included Williams in a list of “highly qualified candidates” endorsed by the union.
Have you seen this woman? #NOPD is searching for Antoinette Williams who was reported missing in the 5th District. Anyone with information is asked to call the 5th District at 504-658-6050 pic.twitter.com/w4Op4U73Xa
— NOPD (@NOPDNews) February 19, 2020
Recommendation: Katherine Baudouin
While I certainly appreciate Grisela Jackson’s service to the board, Katherine Baudouin has a more ambitious and well-thought out platform and will bring the political chops needed for the job.
District 6 captures the furthest reaches of Uptown from Jefferson Avenue to the Black Pearl, as well as the neighborhoods of Hollygrove, Fontainebleau, and Gert Town. Earlier this summer, Woody Koppel, who has served as the district’s board member since 2008, announced he would not run for reelection this fall. There are three contenders for the open seat: David Alvarez, Erica Martinez, and Carlos Zervigon.
David Alvarez is a non-profit consultant and parent of two current New Orleans Public Schools students. This is Alvarez’s second run for the District 6 seat, having previously lost to Woody Koppel in 2016.
During the 2016 campaign, I brought attention to Alvarez’s failure to file timely campaign finance reports and close ties to the teachers unions on this blog, which apparently got under-the-skin of some of his supporters. Last year, one of them randomly attacked me on Facebook about the pieces I wrote, asserting that I had no idea where Alvarez stood on the issues. I wrote the following in response:
“For what it’s worth, I did take the time to learn about where David stood on the issues. My impression was that he was well-intentioned, but woefully unprepared for the job. I also got the impression that he had been conscripted by UTNO to stand for the office, since he seemed to parrot many of their talking points and was the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars of their outside spending. Finally, it seems like my original impression was right, since David certainly hasn’t been weighing in on education policy or a visible presence at OPSB meetings ever since he lost his election two years ago, which is something I would expect from a serious candidate who is committed to improving public education.”
My assessment of Alvarez hasn’t changed. While he claims to be passionate about public education, he’s been completely absent from school debates over the past four years. His prolix and discursive platform sketches out Alvarez’s views on 21st Century capitalism and namechecks an obscure Spanish workers cooperative, but gets basic facts about the school system wrong. He also doesn’t seem to realize that some of his policy ideas would be illegal, such as his proposal that OPSB-authorized charters be required to offer multi-year contracts to employees.
Alvarez has tried to downplay his antipathy towards charter schools, which he openly opposed before deciding to run for OPSB. Back in 2014, Alvarez was one of five self-appointed “community activists” who tried to the block the sale of the long-abandoned Priestley Junior High School building to Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, a popular French-immersion charter that wanted to expand. Calling themselves “The P-Town Project,” Alvarez and his fellow activists protested the sale at community meetings and attacked Lycée Français in an online screed entitled, “Why French Lycée [sic] is the Worst Option For the Priestley Building.”
Lycée eventually got the building, the P-Town Project was never heard from again, and Alvarez now says he wants to expand the number of seats in high-quality schools rather than block them. Color me skeptical.
Erica Martinez is a program director at College Beyond, an organization that helps low-income New Orleans students navigate the myriad challenges they face in college. She is also a New Orleans public school parent who serves on the district’s parent advisory committee.
Martinez is primarily interested in expanding mental health services for students and encouraging more schools to adopt trauma-informed practices in their classrooms. She also wants schools to build stronger relationships with local non-profit organizations that focus on supporting children and young adults.
While these are certainly positive aims, when it comes to important issues like district oversight and governance, school accountability, and student academic achievement, Martinez’s platform has far less to say.
Carlos Zervigon is a former public school teacher, glass artist, and parent of six (!) former New Orleans public school students. Born and raised in the city, Zervigon is a graduate of Eleanor McMain High School, Tulane University, and the University of New Orleans.
Zervigon has been deeply involved in the city’s post-Katrina school reform efforts over the years. He was the founding board chair of Audubon Charter School and has served on the boards of directors of both Ben Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (a.k.a., NOCCA).
If elected, Zervigon wants to build a better system for the delivery of special education services. He also seems to be the only candidate to raise the issue of pandemic-related learning loss. In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Zervigon said he would push for a “district-wide learning recovery plan” to ensure that students can make up lost ground.
Although this is his first run for school board, Zervigon has some experience in electoral politics. Earlier this spring, he defeated three opponents, including David Alvarez, in an election for the Democratic State Central Committee.
Recommendation: Carlos Zervigon
Unlike David Alvarez, Zervigon wants to improve our school system, not blow it up. His deep roots in New Orleans and experience as a teacher and charter school board member make him the best candidate for District 6.
Last, but certainly not least, is District 7, which extends from Gentilly through the Seventh Ward, Tremé, most of the French Quarter, the Warehouse District, and even bites off a small chunk of Algiers on the far side of the river. There are three candidates running in District 7: Nolan Marshall, Jr., Kayonna Armstrong, and Jamar Wilson.
Nolan Marshall, Jr. (I)
Nolan Marshall is a retired small business owner who has represented District 7 since 2012. During his time on the board, Marshall has pushed for later school bus pick-up times, a unified school calendar, along with other pragmatic improvements.
If reelected for another term, Marshall says he will focus on initiatives that address the social and economic needs of students and their families. For example, he believes schools should do more to build students’ financial literacy skills and he wants the district to partner with local organizations to expand job training opportunities.
If I had one criticism of Marshall’s tenure on OPSB, it’s that he sometimes vacillates when confronted with hard decisions. However, his hesitancy comes from a good place: he simply wants to make the right choice.
Kayonna Armstrong is a former paraprofessional and current parent activist with the union-backed astroturf group, Step-Up Louisiana.
Armstrong is running on a platform would essentially tear down our school system. She wants to eliminate all charter schools, jettison OneApp in exchange for neighborhood-zoned schools, and restore the power of the teachers union. Of course, when it comes to issues like academic performance or accountability, Armstrong doesn’t have as much to say.
As one might expect, Armstrong is supported by both the Erase the Board Coalition, although they haven’t put much money behind her candidacy. As of October 26th, Armstrong’s campaign had raised a little over $6500.
Jamar Wilson is an educator who works as the Dean of Student Support at KIPP Leadership Primary in the Faubourg Marigny. He originally hails from Riverside, California, but moved to New Orleans in 2015 to work with RENEW Schools before moving to his current position at KIPP.
Like everyone else, Wilson wants to expand to mental health and special education services for students. He also wants to the district to recruit charter schools that offer more than a traditional college prep focus.
At the same time, some elements of Wilson’s platform are a bit confounding. In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Wilson said he wants the district to directly manage some schools, even though OPSB doesn’t exactly have a strong track record in that regard. The return of direct-run schools would also force the district to re-establish the central office bureaucracy that it only recently restructured, drawing resources and attention away from its primary role overseeing the city’s charter schools. It’s unclear whether Wilson really thinks this is a good idea or is just trying to distinguish himself from other candidates.
Recommendation: Nolan Marshall, Jr.
Nolan Marshall has been a dedicated board member who has been on the right side of votes and is clearly committed to improving education in this city. He deserves another term.