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Democratic Process for New Orleans Superintendent of Schools

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Open Letter to the Orleans Parish School Board

Dear Members of the Orleans Parish School Board – Ethan Ashley, Nolan Marshall, Jr., Katherine Baudouin, Carlos Luis Zervigon, Dr. Jancarlos Wagner Romero, and Olin G Parker.

We write to you as a concerned and united group of youth, parents, and community members who have witnessed the ongoing destruction of public education primarily at the hands of this very body. Nearly every decision by this current composition of the board, the boards led by the outgoing superintendent, Henderson Lewis and boards under the leadership of John White (RSD) have been destructive to the long-term vitality of public education in general, and more specifically to the educational wellbeing of the youth and children in this city.

Access to the highest quality public education is a right that poor and marginalized populations in this country have fought to secure for decades. A strong public education system is central to the well-being of our city and the individuals in it. The existence of which strengthens every inch of our community and every sector of employment while broadening life opportunities for every member of the community who moves through it. And it is the responsibility of the school board is to be stewards of the full complement of resources that support and protect public education in New Orleans. It is the responsibility of the school board to ensure access to the very best education that every single child in New Orleans deserves. This requires policies and actions that strengthen to teachers, initiatives that respond to unique material needs of community, practices that welcome families as co-constructors of education, strong programs that build both the collective skill and critical intellectual capacities of our youth. To take these responsibilities lightly is to gamble with the lives of the least powerful in our community; and it is to reinforce a state of inequity experienced by the working class of New Orleans.

This is why we write this letter – out of deep love and concern for our youth, families, and communities. If we are to honor them, we must challenge the decisions of the school board. It is out of our deep abiding love that we offer this critique.

The education reform agenda that the board has championed, elevates disruption of our communities for the sake of disruption while the most vulnerable students are reduced to collateral damage. This reform agenda has put an end to neighborhood schools. It has decimated one of the last spaces to practice and sharpen collective accountability and democracy. It bears saying that the New Orleans community is no stranger to the vulnerabilities of natural disruption. We live through the risks every June through October when we prepare for and suffer the wrath of increasingly deadly hurricanes. These risks are heighted by decisions of the school board that amount to unnatural disasters.

Annual school closures, passing off schools to new “operators,” multiple governance bodies and disparate management practices that are unresponsive to families and community members, are all threats to our community, not to mention a disruption to our children’s education. It is in this context that we find this latest move in the selection process for the next superintendent, perhaps one of the most egregious actions by this board in recent education reform history in New Orleans.

Over several weeks of “listening sessions” participant after participant, many of whom were Black parents, and others who were concerned Black citizens, shared with you how traumatic it was when the schools were hijacked by a cadre of education reformers who sold schools to the lowest bidder.

Here are just a few of the comments that were made over and over in these meetings:

“We need to see someone who is invested in a teacher pipeline that is rooted locally instead of relying on programs like TFA.”

“We need a superintendent who will oversee a process to return to community schools.”

“We want someone who will end the charter school experiment.”

“We need a superintendent who will stand up for teachers who have been exploited by Charter Management Organizations.”

“We want someone who will stand up to all of the corporate interests running the schools.”

“We need someone committed to the return of PE and arts in all schools. Someone who will rehire school nurses, social workers and guidance counselors instead of farming out services to non-profits.”

“We want someone who will return to neighborhood schools and who will make sure each school has adequate staff, adequate teacher and administration support, and resources for students and families in the neighborhood.”

“We want someone who will establish full-service community schools.”

People asked repeatedly for a new leader who is unattached the education reform agenda; who is from New Orleans; who will work with families and communities; and a superintendent who is committed to returning to neighborhood schools under the direct control of OPSB. Our broad review of the candidates reveals that this slate of candidates fails to live up to these criteria. They raise significant questions about their political and ideological orientations as it relates to meaningful community relationships, traditional public education, and substantive educational equity.

Moreover, nearly all of the candidates have virtually no meaningful experiences as traditional educators here in New Orleans, or, meaningful relationships as community-engaged school leaders here in New Orleans. Several of the candidates have deep ties to education reform organizations that are more wedded to disruption, dispossession of public property, and increasing profits for investors, than they are to the children and City of New Orleans. Community members, and parents, asked for a superintendent who will prioritize the desires of this community over the ideological mandates of market-based public education disrupters. This slate of candidates fails to meet these criteria. We have experienced enough from outsiders and compromised insiders. Enough is enough.

We deserve transparency and answers.

The current school board needs to face the public to offer transparency. We request a series of community forums – a total of 4 in each ward – for students, parents, and community members where you respond to the following questions.

Questions: What criteria you did use to identify the initial list of 15 candidates?

What criteria and process was used to further refine the pool to a list of seven candidates?

What criteria and process will be used to decide on the finalists?

Given the actions of this body as it relates to the selection process, and the slate of seven candidates currently under consideration, we no longer have faith that the board acting alone will select a superintendent who meets our needs or reflects the desire of the community.

We request a new participatory selection process – rooted in the true inclusive spirit and democratic values of public education.

1. Declare this process a failed search

2. Right the course by re-constituting the selection committee to be reflective of this community. We propose the following community representatives on a newly formed hiring committee:

a. Two representatives from Step-Up Louisiana

b. Two representatives from Rethink New Orleans

c. Two representatives from Erase the Board

d. Two members of OPSB

e. Elizabeth Jeffers, PhD

f. Mama Jennifer Turner

3. We propose a series of community forums – 4 in each ward – where the hiring committee will engage with students, parents, and community members at each stage of the process as a practice of transparency necessary for the rebuilding of public trust.

4. Once the field is narrowed to three, we request regular forums – a total 4 in each ward – where the three finalists engage with students, parents, teachers, and community members. The selection committee will garner feedback from each forum. This feedback will determine the next superintendent.

We can be a powerful force if we move as a collective force to ensure that the School Board in this city live up to its responsibilities.

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