DSA New Orleans 2020 Dec 5 Runoff

Voter Guide

Orleans Parish School Board

The Orleans Parish School Board is a locally elected council that ostensibly governs and holds accountable public schools in Orleans Parish. Board members are elected to four-year terms (limited to three consecutive terms). However, Act 91 of the Louisiana Legislature passed in 2016 severely limits the board’s ability to oversee the operation of New Orleans’s mostly charter school system. A key passage from that law states,

“The local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction in the areas of school programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and tests, yearly school calendars and daily schedules, hiring and firing of personnel, employee performance management and evaluation, terms and conditions of employment, teacher or administrator certification, salaries and benefits, retirement, collective bargaining, budgeting, purchasing, procurement, and contracting for services other than capital repairs and facilities construction.”

In effect, Act 91 subverts democratic control of public education and places it in the hands of private non-profits and corporate entities. The OPSB appoints a superintendent who takes the lead in working out charters (or contracts) with non-profit companies that run nearly all of the city’s public schools. The companies that run charter schools also have their own boards that are not publicly elected. Because the OPSB interprets Act 91 to mean that it has no real authority, the Superintendent serves as much at the pleasure of the charter organizations as he does the Board.

In practice, the New Orleans “experiment” with charter schools has been a disaster for the city’s working classes. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, over 7,000 New Orleans teachers were summarily fired by the district. This act alone instantly dissolved OPSB’s relationship with the teachers’ union (United Teachers Of New Orleans) and dealt a hammer blow to a significant part of the city’s Black middle class. In place of that, the charter regime imposes an exploitative and baffling system of precarious working conditions. While teachers have managed to re-organize themselves in some places, the majority of charter networks remain non-union.

The decentralization creates other problems as well. Parents are confused by an opaque admissions and selection process. Students have been victims of inconsistent and unusually harsh disciplinary practices. And the schools frequently fail to accommodate students with special needs. Each of these problems is exacerbated by a chronic lack of transparency among the many disparate charter governing boards who often operate without regard to the open meeting processes required of public bodies.

Nevertheless, the charter reforms of the past decade and a half continue to be championed by the city’s ruling classes and held up as a national example by pro-charter lobbying groups with deep corporate pockets. As a result, there are candidates in each of the races below who have received significant funding not only from wealthy local activists like Leslie Jacobs but also from national PACs such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

This year, a grassroots coalition called “Erase The Board,” whose mission is to return OPSB to a direct-run model free of corporate influence, backed a slate of candidates in opposition to the pro-charter status quo. Three of those candidates, Chanel Payne (District 2), Kayonna Armstrong (District 7), and Antoinette Williams (District 5) have qualified for these runoffs.

School Board District 2

Upper 9th Ward, 8th Ward, Gentilly, and part of New Orleans East (map)

Ethan Ashley is the 31-year-old incumbent and has been an elected member of OPSB since 2017. Under Ashley’s watch, New Orleans became the first major American school district in the country without traditional public schools. In an interview with pro-charter organization LA Charter Schools in Action, Ashley stated “I am definitely there to make sure (charter schools) exist.” In 2014, Ashley authored a letter to the editor arguing that the “charter story of growth and academic gains in New Orleans has been monumental.” He worked for several years for a pro-charter and pro-voucher organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Last year Ashley ran and lost a race for LA State House District 97, potentially due to the fact that he had to defend his support of charter schools as a member of OPSB. During his failed campaign for State Representative, Ashley received donations from former Republican LA State Representative Julie Stokes, $2,500 from pro-charter philanthropist Leslie Jacobs, and $2,500 from LABI, which is the business lobbyist group responsible for killing minimum wage increases and basic labor protection bills, and passing corporate tax cuts at the LA State Legislature.

Ashley outspent his opponent 7 to 1 in the November 2020 primary, spending $21K in the run-up to election day. He also received the support of a number of pro-charter school PACs who sent out a slew of mailers supporting his candidacy. Unlike his opponent, Ashley received high-dollar donations from the city’s titans of industry and political establishment– the likes of Boysie Bollinger (former shipbuilder and major Republican donor), Poco Sloss (former king of Rex and IT company president), Sandy Rosenthal (“a longtime charter advocate whose husband is sometimes called the architect of the RSD”), Merritt Lane (President of the Canal Barge Company and Republican Donor), as well as former Senator Mary Landrieu and current State Rep. Royce Duplessis. Ashley received a shared endorsement from the Independent Women’s Organization (IWO) with his opponent Dr. Chanel Payne and has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of establishment elected officials in Orleans Parish, including Mayor Cantrell, Congressman Cedric Richmond, and State Senator Karen Carter Peterson. Ashley has no classroom or teaching experience.

Dr. Chanel M. Payne appears to be a formidable threat, having received 27% of the vote to Ethan Ashley’s 36% in the November primary. Unlike Mr. Ashley, Dr. Chanel Payne is a native New Orleanian and grew up in School Board District 2. Dr. Payne is in favor of a moratorium on charter schools and a performance audit of the charter program since Katrina. She states, “schools don’t belong to Charter Management Organizations...our schools belong to our students and our teachers,” and favors schools directly run by the school board.

On her social media platforms, Dr. Payne has stated that when a school is failing, OPSB should provide ongoing intensive support, reduce class sizes for teachers, create additional training and support for teachers, and hire additional highly-skilled teachers and leaders who are a cultural fit for those schools. This is in stark contrast to OPSB’s current policy with failing schools, which is to close the school, to revoke the charter, and to greatly disrupt the lives of parents, teachers, and students. Unlike the incumbent, she has also worked as an educator, with more than 15 years of experience, spanning from early childhood education, K-12, higher ed, and education consulting. In the run-up to the November election, she spent $3K and was outspent 7 to 1 by her opponent, with Dr. Payne’s campaign contributions primarily appearing to come from low-dollar grassroots donations from friends and family. She’s been endorsed by the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, BOLD, SOUL, the Independent Women’s Organization (IWO), State Senator Dr. Joe Bouie, Step Up for Action, the Louisiana Weekly, the New Orleans Coalition, and the local teachers union UTNO, among others.

School Board District 4

Incumbent Leslie Ellison’s seat on the board is clearly in trouble and she knows it. This is why her first move at the close of qualifying was to challenge both of her opponents’ candidacies in court based on technicalities. Ellison’s attempts to disqualify her competition failed, eventually. But not until after several weeks of distracting legal wrangling. Tactics like this enabled Ellison to very nearly escape this runoff, garnering just under the necessary majority of votes in the primary. What has she been trying to run and hide from?

Well, to begin with, this appears to be the year that Ellison’s explicit homophobia may finally result in political consequences. In 2012, while she was still the head of a charter school board, she testified to the state legislature that the state cannot prohibit charter schools from discriminating against LGBTQ students on the curious grounds that such a policy would violate the schools’ “religious freedom.” A year later, as a member of OBSP, Ellison spoke against an anti-bullying policy because it listed gender and sexual orientation among the traits that often make students targets. That argument meandered into questions about the separation of church and state about which Ellison snapped, “there is no such thing.”

But why have Ellison’s despicable hostilities only recently become a political problem? Big Easy Magazine points to a groundswell of opposition beginning around the time of her eligibility for the board presidency. But the same article also notes that even this year Ellison received 41 percent support of the OPDEC endorsement vote. While it is tempting to see these developments merely as a case of Ellison receiving a long-overdue comeuppance, likely her corporate, pro-charter backers are simply moving their support to a less problematic standard-bearer.

Jancarlo “J.C.” Romero is currently Chief of Staff at the Einstein Charter network. His campaign has gathered the support of a large number of prominent New Orleans political insiders, organizations, and media apparently galvanized for the move against Ellison. His website features testimonials from several well-known names including Councilmembers Helena Moreno and Kristin Gisleson Palmer, each of whom stresses “inclusion” and “equity” in their statements. But it is previous District 4 OPSB member Lourdes Moran’s endorsement that leaves little doubt that this is primarily about distancing from the incumbent “(Ellison) is not about children or improving public education but rather it’s about self-interest and her next political position,” says Moran.

Closer scrutiny of Romero’s backers, however, reveals several of the same anti-labor “reformist” actors who have been behind the disastrous policies of the charter era. Among these are former board members Seth Bloom and Sarah Usdin, as well as investment banker and 2020’s King of Carnival Storey Charbonnet. Romero was asked about these influences during an interview on WBOK’s NOLA Ed for liberation show in October. But his response merely reaffirmed his “moderate” stance on privatization. “I really want to stress that being in the middle of the road helps me have that independent voice.” Independent of whom? That part is deliberately left vague.

School Board District 5

Katie Baudoin is a former policy aide to Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who has deep connections to the local political establishment. She is far and away the more well-funded candidate in this race and has been perhaps the most prodigious producer of campaign mailers of any candidate in any race this entire year. An array of current and former officeholders including former city councilmember Stacy Head, state legislators Stephanie Hilferty, Mandie Landry, and Matt Willard have given money to her campaign. Much of that we can chalk up to personal and professional connections that come with the territory for a political insider like Baudoin. But other of her contributions are more troubling.

For example, BESE member and hardline anti-teacher Republican Jim Garvey gave her $1,000. Influential fundraiser and charter school advocate Leslie Jacobs gave her $1,000. Most telling, national corporate-funded pro-charter lobbying PAC Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) gave $2,500. During the Step Up forum, Baudoin tap-danced around the question of whether or not schools could be run directly by OPSB. The district “should be able” to do that, she said, but only in a limited capacity such as when they have to take over for a failing charter. When asked a question about equity, Baudoin curiously called for “more private investment” in and “more private ownership” of the public schools. It wasn’t immediately clear what she meant by that, but we can’t help but wonder if her donors are speaking through her there. Read Badoin’s response to our survey.

Antoinette Williams is a recent college graduate and instructional intern at Inspire NOLA Charter Schools. She plays up her youth at forums and interviews, saying she is uniquely qualified to “empathize with the learning needs and personal experiences” of students. One example of this came up during the Step Up forum when Williams said a police presence in schools is “distracting and uncomfortable” for students. She says she would prefer to have teachers and administrators trained in de-escalation.

Endorsed by the United Teachers of New Orleans and the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, and the Erase The Board coalition, Williams says she is “the teachers’ choice.” During the Step Up forum, she described the temp-like conditions of charter school employment as “terrifying” to teachers. She also says she is all for direct run schools, but tempers that by adding that having both charters and direct run schools “provides choice.” Maybe that sounds inconsistent. But in the current reality of an almost all-charter district, introducing the “choice” of a direct-run alternative would be the start of a welcome change.

School Board District 6

Erica Martinez has run a campaign highlighting student security and emotional health. In this race, she has been an advocate for addressing student trauma and focusing on social-emotional education, vital issues that underlie so many other difficulties in our school system. She has many practical ideas for improving local schools, such as increasing funds for early childhood education, having more transparency in the process that assigns students to schools, hiring a compliance officer to monitor Orleans schools, and issuing laptops or tablets to students, but did not tie any issues of the school system to larger, structural challenges of our city and/or nation. Martinez is critical of for-profit charter schools but has not brought up issues with non-profit charters, which make up Orleans Parish’s charter system.

Carlos Zervigon has worked in New Orleans charter schools since Hurricane Katrina and has more educational experience and institutional support in this race than his opponents. Zervigon has voiced support for greater community control of the school district, an audit of New Orleans charter schools, and strengthening school unions. He was not endorsed by Erase the Board and has not been as vocal a critic of our charter system as defeated Erase The Board candidate David Alvarez. Zervigon has offered some analysis of charter schools in Orleans Parish, such as in a candidate debate when he criticized the state's past takeover of the Orleans school system, saying “Schools should be created by communities, schools should be offered to communities, schools should never be imposed on the community.”

School Board District 7

Many of this year's school board races seem defined by the impact of New Orleans’ charter system, and this race especially illustrates the sides in this debate. Nolan Marshall Jr. is the incumbent, serving on the school board since 2012. Marshall has been a moderate force on the board, helping bring in use of the OneApp system for assigning students to schools and pushing small changes to give more students the option of attending a school closer to home. He has advocated for better safety for students and school workers during the pandemic. Marshall is not a strong critic of charter schools, or a great believer in democratic control of the school system, and has even said Orleans Parish should replace some elections for school board with appointments from the mayor and governor. He has received a lot of donations from untrustworthy corporate sources like Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children Louisiana, and Michael Bloomberg, and has Mayor Cantrell’s endorsement.

Kayonna Armstrong is a parent advocate with Step Up Louisiana and a candidate running with the endorsement of Erase the Board, a progressive coalition fighting for more democratic, local control of the Orleans Parish school system. She has criticized the OneApp system in part because it does not assign students to certain selective admissions schools. She supports State Senator Joe Bouie, Jr.'s Senate Bill 509, which would place a moratorium on new charter schools while the state conducts an audit of the Orleans Parish charter system. Armstrong has also called for the end of “at-will” employment in schools, and for halting the over-policing and over-criminalizing of students.