Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pity the Orleans Parish School Board a little, folks.

As an organization, it is currently at the short end of the administrative stick, the scapegoat for generations' worth of ills in New Orleans' public schools...and not without reason. It is currently saddled with $450 million in long-term debt obligations, it only has control over five schools, with another thirteen charter schools under its umbrella of accountability, and it is facing a serious reckoning with regards to the impending retirement of its most experienced teachers - a mass exodus of employees opening up huge holes in the classrooms that will need to be filled. The only consolation the current board members seem to have these days is that, now that the state has had control of darned near all of the public schools for the past three years, it sees how difficult the task really is.

Oh, sure, the state is continuing with certain...errm...traditions in that it is going through superintendents like there is no tomorrow. Its Master Plan for the public schools seems to have been cobbled together with the express directive behind it of ticking off darned near everyone in the community except those who will benefit from its Quick Start constructions. Eventually, however, things will progress far enough along that the state may well toss the schools into the OPSB's laps, because it really isn't that easy to run a school system without a board. "Take this sucker back!!!" they'll say to the repentant, cowed stepchild made to pay for its crimes since well before 8-29's events transpired to drown the city.

Will the board be ready for this?

This is where you, the voter, will come in. Yes, I'm talking to you.

At the past Rising Tide conference, Center for Community Change education team leader Leigh Dingerson said that one of the things that speaks to the dissatisfaction of the city's residents with the current modus operandi of the OPSB is the sheer number of candidates for the school board positions that will be voted on come October 4th (yes, October 4th. Not so far off, is it?). It also speaks to how much hope this crop of candidates has, this belief that they can help usher in real, lasting change that will benefit all of our kids. I am grateful to them for at least driving that home.

Most of the candidates that were at the Urban League's forum last night have themselves been educated in Orleans Parish public schools and/or have sent/are sending their children to OPSD schools. A number of them have experience in the field of education through teaching in the schools themselves, through administrative positions they have held, through their own degrees in education., through their own experiences in dealing with the way the OPSD schools work. Of course, the big question is: which ones of these candidates are going to do the job?

Okay...deep breath now...

What follows are the different districts into which the city is divided, maps of those districts, and the candidates running for the positions in each district. To check which district you are in, head here to enter in your address. More info on candidates without websites can be found here.

District 1 - map
John M. "Johnny" Blanchard, Democrat, Ballot # 104
Christopher H. Smith, Republican, Ballot # 107
Ira Thomas, Democrat, Ballot # 108

District 2 - map
Cynthia Cade, Democrat, Ballot # 109
David Durand, No Party, Ballot # 110
Dwight McKenna, Democrat, Ballot # 111

District 3 - map
C. Davin Boldissar, Democrat, Ballot # 112
Brett A. Bonin, Republican, Ballot # 113
Pat-Sheila Brewer-Felix, Democrat, Ballot # 115
Margaret Dallosta, Other, Ballot # 116
Amelia "Amy" Lafont, Democrat, Ballot # 117

District 4 - map
Lourdes Moran, Democrat, Ballot # 118
Camacia Ross, Democrat, Ballot # 119

District 5 - map
Seth J. Bloom, Republican, Ballot # 120
Avis Brock, Democrat, Ballot # 121

District 6 - map
Woody Koppel, Democrat, Ballot # 122
Percy J. Marchand, Democrat, Ballot # 123

District 7 - map

13 of the candidates were there to answer questions from the public last night. I didn't come in right at the beginning of the event, but I sat next to E and Christian Roselund in the blogger peanut gallery in the back and was clued in by them a little. A person with a query had to direct their question towards the candidates from his/her district or a district, and the district's candidates were the ones that answered.

Like E says, it is shocking how many of the candidates were not clued in to the Facilities Master Plan- yes, it is under the RSD's jurisdiction right now, but it affects ALL of the public schools. At least attempt to read it, comment on its daunting size, anything to indicate you know it exists! The ones that demonstrated the most familiarity with the Master Plan and its shortfalls were District 6's candidate Percy Marchand and the three District 3 candidates present, Davin Boldissar, Amy Lafont, and Brett Bonin, though Bonin mentioned that he was critical of the criticism from the community towards the plan, noting that major decisions still need to be made somehow.

A question arose for the District 2 candidates from a parent sending their child to Jefferson Parish for school: when will I NOT be sending my children out of the district for school? Give me a timetable. None of the candidates could give a clear answer to this one, other than to say that most of the District 2 schools are still under the RSD's control - Cynthia Cade was horrified that the RSD was still turning students away.

District 4 candidates were asked about their academic expertise and how they would use that to ensure that all students benefit from a quality education regardless of their economic backgrounds and race. Lourdes Moran, the incumbent, advocated bringing the issues to the superintendent and having him/her deal with them. Challenger Camacia Ross felt that the board members' task was to govern and to be held accountable in the task of making that education available to all, and that her background in teaching and public school administration would prove to be a great asset. A similar question put to both candidates: "What would you do to ensure that the schools will be quality schools?" elicited responses that were nearly as similar as the ones for the first question. Ross brought in the issue of making all the stakeholders in a school - the students, parents, teachers, and the administrators - a part of the larger dialogue in bringing the schools up to a higher standard. "We have been doing things in quick isolation," she said. Moran leaned towards "site-based management" and once again directed the issues towards the superintendent. All the board is there for is to evaluate the academic achievement of the schools and the "high-stakes test scores" so that the board will be accountable to the state.

District 6 candidates were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the philosophical push for charters. Percy Marchand stated that he believed in what works, but feels that a "hybrid system" - a mix of charters and traditional public schools - is best. Woody Koppel felt that we needed to get away from "who's educating kids", stand aside, and let the schools continue their jobs.

Yes, some of these candidates have a past of being perpetual candidates for school board positions. Overall, though, I think the quality of the candidates is higher than it has been in a long time. The issues are quite juicy and will likely make for some races that will turn into possible runoffs. In other words, New Orleanians aged 18 and over, don't sit this race out. Get educated so's our board will be educated.

Well, as educated as they possibly can be...

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