Running for School Board?

Jul 13, 2012

Charles Babbage said, “The public character of every public servant is legitimate subject of discussion, and his fitness or unfitness for office may be fairly canvassed by any person.”

This week local university presidents held a press conference to urge citizens to run for seats on the New Orleans Public School Board. The NOPS board primary will be held on the same day as the Presidential election, November 6th. Current school board members will say the action is a backdoor vote of no confidence.  But, the expected high voter turnout will allow democracy to shape the future of schooling in Orleans yet again.

Changes in the school landscape have occurred despite the presence of the NOPS board.  School by school, legislators, non-profits and advocates forged a new era for the country to behold. State takeover, expansion of charter schools, choice, vouchers, and new teachers can be attributed to folks who often cited NOPS as the chief reason for change. 

“No taxation without representation!”  That rallying cry led to the American Revolution.  Ironically, there hasn’t been a citywide cry for representation or taxation for that matter around public education. Eventually, for better or for worse, schools should migrate back to their intended Constitutional authority. Issues of accountability, taxation and bonding have highlighted reasons why the public needs elected officials.

But what will schools return to?

The reforms rightly decentralized many school functions to the school level.  Remember the days when we assumed that 7 board members ran 120 schools? Decentralization also provided NOPS the opportunity to correct its fiscal woes and stabilize a group of successful schools.  However, the expansion of the voucher program revealed the limits of decentralization.  In the very least, we need an external body to hold schools accountable for our tax dollars. That includes funding towards the erection and maintenance of facilities.

It’s a shame that no one on the current board has put up return procedures for public debate. Former State Superintendent Paul Pastorek created a set of criteria, but it’s the local board’s responsibility to craft a legal and structural landing pad.

Many label the question of whether schools should go back to NOPS as “the battle for return,” which is like scratching wind. It the double entendre of return that’s concerning. Someone once said, “What you need to know about the past is that no matter what has happened, it has all worked together to bring you to this very moment. And this is the moment you can choose to make everything new.”

It’s not so much that New Orleans needs new school board members as much as we need individuals who will establish solid, durable governance structures so that schools can help children and communities succeed. Incumbents should offer plans that show a vision of a cohesive district that maintains what’s working with our reforms.  If the current board members do not, the schools may not be the only things not returning.