How to Design a School Board

There needs to be a better way

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

State officials are itching to rid themselves of the responsibility of overseeing most of New Orleans’ public schools, but even after a half-dozen years of study, no one has devised a return plan that isn’t fraught with risk.

Yet there’s a perfectly sound solution to the problem: The character of the Orleans Parish School Board needs change so that it reflects the reality of the current education landscape. That transformation can only be accomplished by changing the way board members are elected. The only way to reduce the friction and self-serving power plays dominating the school board for most of the past 30 years is to return to an all at-large member board. All seven members should be elected with the support of the majority of the voters of the city.

Before 2005, the school system was made up of scores of neighborhood schools, but after Katrina swept so many of them away only a handful were left. Nowadays more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend open enrollment charters schools that collect students by bus from all over the city.

Everything has changed for schools, students and parents, yet the school board is still stuck in the past: its membership is divided into seven districts, which means each member is elected from a small part of the city. This seven-district pie creates a situation where members frequently push conflicting agendas based on the narrow interests of their constituents or their own self-serving desires. No one is elected to serve the interests of the city as a whole. Such a structure only leads to constant bickering and policy stalemates as illustrated by the current board’s long delay in hiring a new superintendent.

According to a 2010 report by the Bureau of Governmental Research and Tulane University’s Cowen Institute, the sub-district trend for school board make-up developed in the United States four decades ago with the intention of increasing diversity in membership. The report says that in 1987, the OPSB switched to a board consisting of five-district elected members and two at-large members. In ’92, the report says the board eliminated both at-large members and replaced them with district members.

Obviously, that change didn’t work out. By 2005, the board was running one of the worst school districts in the country and the feds were rooting around in OPSB financial records looking for missing money. Not too long afterwards, one of its former chairmen was convicted of corruption and sent to prison.

The state’s decision to seize the “failing” schools after the storm was the best thing to ever happen to New Orleans public school children. In less than a decade, the state’s Recovery School District’s willingness to turn school operations over to semi-independent charter operators has resulted in astonishing results. Last year, the Louisiana Department of Education reported that “only 5.7 percent of [New Orleans] students attend a failing school today – down from 65 percent in 2005.”

Only the highest performing of the state’s RSD charter schools are eligible to return to OPSB control under present state policies, but so far none have been willing to take the step. That reluctance isn’t surprising. What school leaders with historical memory would want to plunge their schools back in to the fractious, dysfunctional orb that surrounds OPSB politics?

Reason says let well enough alone, but powerful people support the notion that schools must return to local control at some point, whether the RSD charters want to return or not. The toughest decision facing education policy makers is how to achieve that without risking the erosion of the gains of the past nine years.

Numerous well-meaning civic-minded groups have spent countless hours debating how to restructure the school board in a way that would rid it of internal strife and the resulting incompetence.

The conundrum is this: How to neutralize the conflicting political agendas that plague the elected governmental body governing the futures of thousands of school children?
Most, if not all, of the proposals for restructuring the school board include vague references to replacing some elected officials with appointed members, presumably people with upstanding backgrounds and some kind of educational expertise.

Bad idea, very bad idea.

According to the BGR and Cowen Institute report, mayors have been given the authority to appoint school members in some of the nation’s school districts. A current school board member said in a recent political campaign that he supports mayoral appointments for New Orleans, but if fate is kind, this method will never gain traction.
No offense intended to New Orleans’ current mayor, but recent history dictates skipping this option.

Former Mayor Ray Nagin, self-described reformer turned felon, spent much of his second term in office padding his private bank account by exchanging cash for political favors. After spending days considering the evidence, a jury of his peers convicted him of taking bribes from city contractors. What kind of school board would the city have today if he had had the power to choose members from a list of his fellow crooks?

One might argue that Nagin is an exception to the rule, but federal prisons have housed more than one New Orleans area mayor in the past few years. Nagin’s conviction followed Jefferson Parish Mayor Aaron Broussard’s trip to the pen for abusing political power. Three years before Broussard exchanged business suits for prison garb, Mandeville’s former mayor, Eddie Price, plead guilty to corruption charges.

As the BGR and Cowen Institute said in 2010, “There is no perfect solution for school governance in New Orleans. But one thing is clear: We can and must improve upon past governance structures.”

Amen to that sentiment. But the nation’s democratic traditions require an elected school board, and the only way to get one that looks to the future and not the past is to elect city-wide members who reflect the city’s needs as a whole entity. At the very least, the two-at-large members need to be restored.
 

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